Cape Town - The deterioration of the litigation claims environment against medical professionals was not only threatening the role of specialists, but also causing a financial burden on the public, according to experts.

Litigation was often sought after by patients when they felt unhappy about a doctor’s treatment and had no other avenues of complaint.

An article published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) this month has pointed out the rising costs of negligence claims faced by patients as well as doctors.

“Pursuing clinical negligence claims in South Africa can be a lengthy and costly process for plaintiffs, defendants and the State,” said co-author of the article, Dr Graham Howarth, from the Medical Protection Society (MPS).

The increase in litigation cases against doctors in the private sector was leading to a decline in specialists in the industry, according to the article.

“Our data also indicates that the estimation of the long-term average claim frequency for doctors in 2015 is around 27% higher than in 2009.”

The article further suggested that increased claim sizes would force subscription costs to rise and reduce affordability for certain specialties.

“As the clinical negligence claims environment deteriorates, the impact is felt not only by healthcare professionals, but also by the wider public as a result of the strain costs placed on the public purse,” the article said.

The article explained that patients often had no other choice than to resort to litigation as the result of limited or non-existent complaints systems.

“A protracted legal process can have a significant impact on the final costs of settling a claim, as it means legal bills continue to mount and compensation can increase in size,” said Howarth.

The article emphasized the need for legal reform in South Africa and more mediation.

“There’s more of an effort to mediate before going to court,” said Chris Bateman, from the Health and Medical Publishing Group and news editor of SAMJ.

Bateman added that doctors should be understanding of patient concerns and admit any wrongdoing immediately.

The article suggested that to reduce the mounting costs on the public, a system should be created that ensured reasonable compensation for patients and allowed a fair and robust defense where necessary.

South African Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, has previously expressed his concerns about the situation, which he described as a “crisis”.

During a medico-legal summit in Pretoria last year, Motsoaledi said that “the ultimate loser is the public” and added that the healthcare budget would have to be increased to cater for escalating litigation.