Medical Law and Ethics is a scientific discipline which has not been fully embraced in Nigeria, but at law schools in many developed countries it has gained the status of a distinct scientific discipline. Medical Law may be the law that has the final say in medical cases, but ethics plays a large role in determining what the law says and how it is interpreted – from those that protect patients from harm, to those that continue to be contentious.
Medical lawyers work on cases such as medical practitioner negligence, violations of patient confidentiality, or criminal activity involving patient abuse and misuse of prescription drugs. The field of medical law is a broad discipline that falls under the practice of personal injury, medical malpractice, and healthcare law.
A conference to drive home the need for a more robust medical law and ethics awareness among lawyers – especially young lawyers – was recently held at the Harbour Point on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, Lagos. According to Newswire Law and Events Magazine’s Lagos correspondent, the 2-day Healthcare Management Conference, which was organized by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Business Law in collaboration with a Medical Consulting Firm, BeyHealth Masterclass, had as its theme, ‘Medicine, Accountability and Law.’
The event was graced by invited doctors, who spoke from a medical perspective, as well as lawyers who specialized narrowly in this area of law to speak from legal and dispute resolution perspectives. These stakeholders lamented the spate of court case involving medical establishments in Nigeria. It is said that your cases should never get to court if you are actually doing what your clients want – which is, essentially, restitution and settlement, rather than jail time or similar sanctions. How many times have you read that John Hopkins Hospital is in court? some of them asked.
As one speaker put it: “There is an allegation against a doctor; I as a lawyer would instigate the press and the social media calling him a butcher-doctor. Immediately you run to the Medical Practitioners’ Council of Nigeria (MPCN), you petition, and then you now write, ‘let us settle.’ What are we settling? You have already spoilt his name (the doctor) because you’ve already taken him to the regulators. You are now talking of compensation; it won’t work because the case would end in the Supreme Court. That is why most cases die. Every day on social media you read about patients treated in a bad way. Give them two months that case would fizzle away because most times the lawyers themselves bungle it. If your wife is pregnant will you take her to a dentist for delivery? Is a dentist not a doctor? But of course you would not do that.
Medical law is a specific branch of law that is primarily concerned with issues related to the responsibilities of health care providers and patients’ rights. Medical lawyers work in a variety of settings. They may represent clients in medical malpractice lawsuits, advise hospital committees or defend physicians. Medical lawyers may also help shape legislation by advising legislators on how to draft state laws and regulations concerning the medical profession. Not unlike other attorneys, medical lawyers need solid interpersonal, communication, research and analytical skills. it is not a field for all lawyers.
- If you are going to go into medical law the first thing is that you must be able to read extensively.
- You cannot afford a litigious practitioner. This type of practitioner may be good for criminal law, maritime law or any other commercial law, but not medical law. At the American College of Legal Medicine they, “Malpractice issues should end at the doorstep into the courtroom.” Which means the cases must end before it gets to court. You must have an approach of reconciliation. Don’t cry more than the bereaved.
A practitioner of medical law, Mr. Osanyin shared his experience as a case study: “My client performed an operation on a patient; an infertile couple of about 40 years. They did an IVF and got twins. At delivery the woman dies, one child died. I reviewed the case and we discovered that it was due to negligence on the part of my client. We called the other party. We apologized, we commiserated, and we sympathized. We made them feel we were part of that sense of loss. We gave the husband an offer. We said, “Can we help in raising your child to give him free healthcare services till the child is 18 years old.” The man said ‘No;’ he could never allow that to happen in the hospital where the child’s mother died. We said, “Nominate any hospital of your choice, doctors know each other.” He looked at the offer and looked at the baby and was thinking that if I can have free medical service for this child from age 3 weeks old till 18 years, it’s reasonable. Before he change his mind, we said, “Sir, for you also, we heard that you are hypertensive, we are ready to treat your hypertension too. Sir, please take this little cheque of N5million. He looked at the options and said OK. And at the end of it all we said, “Before you go sir, non-disclosure agreement and final settlement.” That is, this is the full and final settlement of this dispute; you shall not go to court, the police, and the press. He looked at the medical agreements and the N5million, he signed and left.”
He gave the following advice:
“If you are going to handle cases don’t be too eager to go to court. Try and follow the intentions of your clients. They are usually emotional. 99% of reasons clients engage lawyers in medical malpractices cases are emotional rather than clinical issues. Emotional issues are good ways for medical lawyers to make more money. So make sure that at every point in time you apply Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and expertly keep it away from the doorsteps of courts. The moment you let a greedy man continue a lengthy case in court you will be broke. Because seeing you (doctor) is reminding him about his dead wife. So advocacy can solve it before it gets to that.”
Medical lawyers in America, Osanyin said, are among the richest lawyers in the world because its percentage base. “If you don’t have money it’s a perfect way to take over you case and agreed a higher percentage because the person involved doesn’t really care about the money, all they want is justice. They would handle your medical case and make their money from the settlement of your case. You don’t spend the lengthy time the trial lawyers spent in court. They could make their money in three to four sittings of any case.”
In addition to the obligatory four years of law school, many medical lawyers obtain additional graduate degrees in bioethics, history, psychology or philosophy. However, aspiring medical law attorneys generally need only to obtain a law degree. During law school, students who wish to become medical attorneys may seek internships with medical malpractice attorneys to gain hands-on experience. Lawyers of all kinds, including those who specialize in medical-related practice, write legal documents, research laws, present a client’s case to a judge or jury, and negotiate settlement agreements.
Newswire Law and Events Magazine Lagos correspondent asked some of the young lawyers why they choose medical law. “I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to take my legal education throughout most of my years of law school in the university” responded a lady who is 3 years at the Bar, “I just wanted to make sure I had a job once I got out of Law School. I didn’t figure medical law out until I studied for my Masters degree in London after I took a comparative health law class with some international students. We took a critical look at both the British and African health care systems. Discussing the two vastly different approaches and the benefits and challenges in each system was an eye-opening experience that spurred my interest in this field.”
Said a young male lawyer: “Medical Law is such a big growth field with an incredible amount of opportunity, especially in the coming years. No one knows how it’s all going to work moving forward, and there is going to be a big demand for lawyers to help figure it out.”
Also speaking at the Conference, the chairman of The NBA Section on Business Law, Mr. Olumide Akpata, said, the foundation of the SBL was built around young lawyers because they are the next generations of lawyers. “The young lawyers shouldn’t worry about their specialization in law school because everyone graduates with the same degree. Medical law is an interesting and compelling area of law, and it’s a useful area of law, too. Everyone has to touch the health care system at some point in their lives.”
Medical law, he said, was an incredibly broad field that touches on many different aspects of law, with ample opportunity. The job market for lawyers was getting better, he concluded, so it makes sense to go into an area that is in high demand, as medical law presently is.
The conference treated delegates and speakers from both the legal and medical profession to a good lunch and cocktail.
To so many young lawyers who were indecisive about specialization in the profession, the 2018 SBL Health Conference has opened their eyes and consciousness to an interesting aspect of the legal profession. In addition, young lawyers can now gain the expertise needed by starting their careers in document review or research roles involving medical law. Medical law runs the gamut from interpreting new legislation for employers and providers, to representing clients who are denied Social Security benefits, to analyzing rapidly evolving topics in public health policy and bioethics. All stakeholders were unanimous in the conviction that whether you’re interested in working for large hospital systems, pharmaceutical companies, or in private practice, you can find your niche as a medical care lawyer in this growing field.