When doctors kill; Voices of the forgotten corpses

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Author, Godfred Adjabeng-Mensah, Kwahu Nkwatia


It is no debatable issue that all, including you and I, shall pass. Much as we see long life as blessings and early deaths as the handiworks of God or some metaphysical beings, we are most often afraid to talk about, let alone question the foundation of some deaths. No matter how vague and or neutral our views on spirituality are, there is no hidden fact that some deaths are inexplicable so long as our physical world relates.

There are, however, some deaths that occur to our dismay especially after we entrust the health of our loved ones into the hands of professionals only to find things exacerbate. Why do we not talk about such incidences? In those circumstances when we talk, why do we not see progress?

Doctors and other health workers are vital to every aspect of a country. They are the architects of our health delivery systems who ensure that our ailments do not take us to our undeserved graves, or at least that is what they are to be doing.

However, some of these doctors and health officials, if left unchecked may become deadly pythons lurking under our carpets and using our healths/lives for a “try and see” ride.

Restricting ourselves to the physical world as it is, one will agree that some prominent, yet often ignored, causes of death are the negligence and or deliberate acts and omissions of some doctors and other health workers within our various hospitals.

Illegitimate medically induced deaths also referred to as medical errors/negligence are rampant all around the world and in countries  such as our Ghana where less attention is paid to our health sector, such deaths keep increasing at an alarming rate.

This topic has become a sensitive nerve to touch and some victims who have suffered the harsh realities of this malfeasance are muted by the lack of commitment to fighting this menace in our part of society.

We can understand that a country like the United States is medically far advanced as compared to Ghana. It comes as no surprise that our politicians rush to overseas, mostly in the United States, to seek medical attention.

Recently in December 2019, Deputy Information Minister, Nana Dokua Asiamah Adjei, gave birth in the United States of America at a time when pregnant women were dying in Ghana due to the lack of ambulances, whilst we had over 200 ambulances parked at the parliament house- a decision by the politicians. We cannot pretend not to know the reason behind the minister’s choice of forum for delivery. “Each man to himself”, they say.

However, even in the US with their most advanced medical facilities as well as highly trained medical professionals, it has become a debate as to the number and frequency of deaths caused by acts and omissions of doctors and their medical staff. A recent Johns Hopkins study claims more than TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND (250,000) people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors. Other reports claim the numbers to be as high as FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY THOUSAND (440,000) people.

Medical errors are arguably the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the US. The statistics shows and those who argue on it have the facts, though sometimes disputed, to back their claims.

When can we say that a specific conduct of a doctor or health official amounts to medical errors/malpractice? They can be in the form of;

1/ Making wrong diagnosis of illness, disease, or injury and prescribing wrong medication, treatment, or therapy;

2/ performing surgical operation without due care or a failure to follow proper professional procedures or rules generally accepted by the medical community;

3/ Failure to inform the patient (or his or her parents, guardian, or legal representatives) of the side effects or risks of prescription medication, treatment, surgery, or any other therapies;

4/ Failure to obtain the consent of the patient (or his or her parents, guardian, or legal representatives) before administering medication, treatment or performing surgery.

5/ Using threats or undue pressure to obtain patient’s consent (or that of his or her parents, guardian, or legal representatives) in order to administer medication, treatment modality, or perform surgery.

6/ professing falsely to possess a specific medical skill and knowledge and as a result causing death or physical injury to people.

The above list, I must say, is not exhaustive.

At this point, one may wonder that if even the US has medical errors as the third leading cause of death, what then is the situation in Ghana? Your guess is as good as mine; WE DO NOT KNOW BUT WE CAN GUESS. Our lack of knowledge in how many Ghanaians are dragged to their graves annually is not because people do not die from medical errors. In fact, I think, more people die from medical errors than they die from self-medication.

I am aware of an instance where a nurse in labour died just because the first doctor who performed CS on her committed so much blunders. As a result, he could not refer the nurse to the appropriate hospital to arrest the situation just because his work and reputation was going to be on the line. This woman died and will be added to statistics that will never be known.

I am also aware of an instance where a woman died shortly after blood transfusion. According to sources, that blood was incompatible with the blood group of the woman that it ought not to have been administered at all. This was one of the basic knowledge to health experts and left a lot of questions than answers as to why a woman will be shoved into her grave in that avoidable manner.

There is also an instance where a woman walked into a hospital with umbilical hernia. She was booked for surgery but the date was postponed without any reason at all. Three days thereafter, the woman became restless and her abdomen was distended (the abdomen became enlarged). An NG tube was passed by a different doctor who obviously appeared to know nothing about what she was doing except to rely on the expertise of the nurse at that time. The NG tube passed was to decompress the abdomen. The situation could have been rescued if it had been addressed as soon as it was discovered. The content drained from the NG tube indicated a gangrenous bowel which is a medical emergency that required urgent surgery. No surgery was performed as the doctor obviously knew little or nothing about the condition. At the time the more experienced doctor came the following day, the condition had gone beyond rescue and nothing the new doctor did could save the patient. The woman who walked to the hospital for treatment was later hearsed out of the hospital as a corpse.

There are numerous instances, one nurse I spoke to told me, where nurses on night duties sleep beyond the times they are required to attend to their patients. They end up leaving the patients to their fates and the unlucky ones die. In fact, I am told, stroke patients, for example, by virtue of their condition sometimes find it difficult to swallow. This may lead to accumulation of saliva/phlegm in their mouths.

The unlucky ones, if not attended to on time by the professionals on duty, choke on their phlegm and in extreme cases, die as a result. Every patient with stroke is assessed, or ought to be assessed, for swallowing and an NG tube may be passed.

The patient, I am told, can die from other causes and not necessarily choking as the the NG tube, when passed, can take care of choking. This is only so where proper examination, care and attention are given to the patient. As has been discussed, there are instances where these level of desired attention is either absent or insufficient to arrest the medical calamity that may befall the patient.

In an article published by ghanaweb.com on 18th June 2018, the horrifying story of a young man whose stomach began to rot after a surgical procedure at the Ridge hospital in Accra was reported. See the news item from the link below. (https://mobile.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Medical-negligence-Ridge-Hospital-cited-in-case-of-rotten-stomach-after-surgery-661180). Again, an article published by popular Ghanaian news outlet myjoyonline.com on 12th April, 2018 suggests that according to a report from a research conducted by an NGO in Ghana, over 50 cases of deaths are recorded in Ghana as a result of medical negligence. Dr Gabriel Benakuu, the Chairman of NGOs in Health revealed this to the media. See the news item from the link below (https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2018/april-12th/over-50-cases-of-medical-negligence-recorded-annually.php). With much reverence to the Chairman, this figure is highly likely to be an understatement of the situation on the ground.

In 2017, one prominent sports journalist Christopher Opoku died in a manner that shook the entire nation. Yen.com.gh reports that the death of the said journalist was as a lasting result of a botch medical surgery he underwent at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH) some four years earlier.  See the news item from the link below (https://yen.com.gh/amp/93201-botched-operation-kath-killed-chris-opoku-nana-agyemang.html).

In yet another case reported by myjoyonline.com on 3rd February, 2016, a man narrated the emotionally drenching moment when his wife entered the Madina Polyclinic as a pregnant woman due for delivery, but only to come out as a corpse. (http://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2016/February-3rd/driver-who-lost-wife-in-alleged-medical-negligence-bares-chest.php).

One thing is for sure, the rate of deaths in our hospitals and the lack of credible statistics is worrying. When something goes wrong and our health declines, we turn to medical professionals. Men and women, who we believe and trust, to have spent several years of their lives pursuing the knowledge to treat what ails us. We trust our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, in their care when things get tough. That makes the topic of medical errors and medical malpractice a tough one. That nonetheless, is a bitter pill we must swallow and spill.

Sometimes things go very wrong. Sometimes the doctors you trust don’t provide the level of medical care that you deserve. The unfortunate situation is that some of them know too well that there are deaths caused by their doings and non-doings. In our part of the world where honesty has become as scarce as urine is to fowls, I am yet to come across a doctor’s report that specifies that the cause of death of a particular ex patient was “doctor’s negligence”.

The Ghanaian health sector is controlled  and handled by various actors and stakeholders. They range from the politicians, political appointees, the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. Unfortunately, it is only the politicians and their appointees who are blamed and bashed for lapses in the health sector. The politicians, to a greater extent, deserve the anger of the masses especially when they fail to procure basic health equipment for the hospitals.

The real point of death, sometimes, are in the hands of those with expertise to handle the patients directly. However, we fail or refuse to look and blame the real source of misfortune which, sometimes, are glaring even to those without medical eyes. Some doctors who know of such avoidable mistakes become mute and in some cases, take deliberate steps to cover up for their colleagues. There are even some, on the other hand, who are genuinely worried about what happens in their hospitals from their colleagues.

In law, specifically in the tort of negligence, a proven case of medical negligence is actionable. The victim, if he/she lives, or the dependants of the victim, if the victim dies, can take action in the law courts and claim compensation. It is also a prosecutable offence when medical negligence is proven beyond reasonable doubt. This, albeit commendable, is only applicable after the harm has been caused and the calamity concluded. We cannot wait for people to die or become disabled to go to court to claim some due entitlements. When we get to that stage, we will employ the assistance of the courts but we can also work to reduce, if not prevent this situation- the proper approach.

Just as we did cleanse our banking sector, just as we are aggressively cleaning the education sector and just as, by the Anas’ antics, we cleared some of the moles within the judiciary, it may be now or never to look into the deaths caused by medical errors. It may be time to reduce, if not prevent, the number of people dragged to their graves before their time. These grave dwellers may not have the voice. Their dependants may not be bold to speak, but we do. Maybe it is time to visit our hospitals.

The corpses of the victims of our medical sector scream to our ears everyday but we are too busy to listen. Those who listen refuse to understand and those who understand may be part of the scheme.

We can pretend not to bother till the same fate befall us or our dearly beloved ones. Is it lack of proper education, which I doubt? Lack or inadequate health facilities , the obvious ones? Can it be as a result of the lack of supervision and control? The solution is simple, we must pay attention whilst we live or our corpses will scream to the living to pay attention for us whilst we are gone. The living, just as we do to the corpses, may not listen.


Ghana | Atinkaonline.com