Duty of candour law would not ensure safer care

by Leanne Davison

The proposed legislation in Northern Ireland would not solve the problem, when what we need is government investment and staff support

Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Friday 23 July 2021

Every doctor wants to provide the best and safest care for their patients, and no one wants any family to suffer in the way that the five bereaved families referenced in the O’Hara report suffered. 

Any healthcare professional who wilfully causes harm or obstructs an investigation should rightly experience the appropriate sanctions. But I strongly believe that an individual duty of candour with criminal sanctions is not the best way to do this. There already exist both professional and legal duties on doctors to be open and honest with families when there has been an error. 

In my own field of intensive care medicine, there is a real concern that the context in which we work, dealing daily with critically ill patients, bed pressures and staff shortages, would not be taken into account when a mistake happens.

I worry that the proposed legislation will not lead to the safe culture that is needed, and could in fact lead to a defensive form of medicine where patients are over investigated and over treated, which would also lead to delays in an already struggling system.

To ensure safer care what we really need is government investment in recruitment and retention of staff, as well as a culture within our workplaces in which staff genuinely feel safe and supported to learn.

Leanne Davison is chair of the BMA Northern Ireland SAS (staff, associate specialist and specialty) doctors committee