Inquests can be tough on doctors. In our modern technological world, where there is an unreaslistic expectation that doctors can overcome most ills, there is belief that doctors will prolong and preserve all human life, if they act correctly. Regrettably, some grieving families and bereaved spouses find it difficult to accept that their loved one has died a natural death and instead seek to blame doctors and other clinical staff for not doing enough. Many families look to blame doctors for the ‘premature’ or unexpected death of their loved one.
Where a death is not easily explained (at least in layman’s terms) criticism of the treating or responsible doctors is likely to follow. “Surely they would have lived longer if the doctor had acted promptly,” is an accusation often made against doctors. Sometimes such allegations are made in more pejorative terms by local newspapers who get tipped off by families about the cover ups they fear are occurring. Coroners have a duty to investigate deaths that appear unnatural, or where the deceased met a violent death, and coroners must take seriously allegations made by families that something untoward has occurred. A Coroner must hold an inquest in such circumstances. Many doctors are called to give evidence at inquests and many find it a gruelling experience. Doctors are entitled to representation at inquests, if they are deemed to be an interested party. Many doctors, when giving evidence, find themselves responding to allegations that they have neglected a patient, or caused or contributed to a patient’s death through an inappropriate act or omission.
Being well-prepared for an inquest is to a doctor’s advantage. A doctor should make sure that they have read the patient notes thoroughly before attending an inquest to give evidence. Many families will instruct experienced barristers to represent them at inquests and doctors attending as witnesses should consider having the support of a barrister themselves, to ensure “equality of arms” during the inquisitorial proceedings.
Case Study: A GP Practice was found to have contributed to the death of an adult asthmatic for having not proactively done enough to control their client’s asthma symptoms. The GPs argued that the client had not attended for more prescriptions and had not attended the practice over a long period of time, so suggesting that she had low level or no symptoms requiring GP input. The GP practice’s paperwork showed a variable and inadequate response by the GPs to historic asthmatic episodes and no follow-up when the client failed to attend an appointment. The Coroner, sitting without a jury, found that the GPS on the balance of probabilities had contributed to the death of the client. The deceased’s family thereafter sought to sue the GP Practice for compensation after the inquest verdict was recorded. [Note: Within coronial law a person can be found to have caused or contributed to the deceased’s death, even when the person’s contribution is not the main cause of death. All that is needed is proof that the causation or contribution to death was more than minimal or trivial or de minimus.]