A registered psychiatrist who is charged with unprofessional conduct for allegedly failing to attend to a patient in an emergency situation, whereafter the patient had committed suicide, turned to court as she does not want to be forced to testify before a body looking into her conduct.
The psychiatrist, referred to as Dr MT, turned to the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, to have a decision of the Professional Conduct Committee of the Health Professions Council of South Africa overturned.
After the committee had presented its case against the doctor, it was her turn to present her defence. That meant that she was required to testify about what had happened. The psychiatrist made it clear that she wanted to remain silent.
Her legal team asked the conduct committee for her discharge, meaning she would not have to state her case.
The committee, however, refused the application and said she had a case to answer to.
In turning to court, the psychiatrist complained that her right to remain silent has been infringed.
The applicant was charged with unprofessional conduct, following the death of her patient in May 2020.
The charge related to an allegation that she had acted in a manner that was not in accordance with the norms and standards of her profession, in that she negligently failed to attend to her patient in an emergency.
In May 2019, a general health-care practitioner referred the deceased to the applicant for further psychiatric care for major depression. The applicant diagnosed that the deceased suffered from, among others, bipolar mood disorder after she had been through a traumatic childhood.
The deceased’s main symptoms had been continuous suicidal thoughts and tendencies which she had later acted upon. She died “by self-harm” about a year later.
Early in the evening, a day before the deceased’s death, she had sent an e-mail to the applicant. The next morning, the applicant’s secretary, on the insistence of the applicant, had replied, relaying the psychiatrist’s answer (which was not stated in court documents).
The applicant alleged that her reply via her secretary was a general practice. The reply was confined to advice relating to medication only, she said.
The deceased’s mother lodged a complaint with the HPCSA against the applicant. The nub of her complaint was centred on the manner in which the applicant had dealt with or failed to deal with the deceased’s urgent call for help in the email the previous night, before she had taken her own life.
A preliminary committee found that the applicant was, on the face it, guilty of unprofessional conduct or conduct with regard to her profession and that she should face the conduct committee.
At the commencement of the hearing, the applicant pleaded not guilty and exercised her right to remain silent.
The mother of the deceased was called to testify, whereafter it closed its case. The applicant, before testifying or leading evidence, applied to be discharged.
The question the committee was faced with was: What would a diligent specialist psychiatrist in the place of the respondent do to assist his or her patient?
It said that after it considered the interests of justice, the interests of society and the interests of the complainant, it decided that the applicant had a case to answer to. The committee made it clear that it had not, at that stage, decided whether she was guilty of misconduct.
The applicant argued that the decision to dismiss her application to be discharged adversely affected her right to a fair hearing, as it forced her to answer the prima facie case in circumstances when she wished to remain silent.
Judge LA Retief remitted the matter back to the committee for reconsideration.