Do country hospitals have a lower duty of care to patients?

Published 30 Oct 2017

Healthcare outcomes can vary dramatically when you compare rural hospitals to those in the city.

Wards in remote and regional areas face unique challenges, including fewer specialist services, workforce shortages and patients with specific health concerns.

Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that people in locations outside major cities often suffer poorer health than their metropolitan counterparts, including:

  • A higher prevalence of chronic diseases;
  • More dental decay;
  • Poorer mental health;
  • Higher injury rates; and
  • More disabilities.

Given these factors, are country hospitals afforded more leniency in their duty of care to patients in Queensland? Or are standards set just as high?

Before answering these questions, let’s first examine what ‘duty of care’ means in more detail.

Understanding duty of care

Duty of care is a central issue in many public liability claims, including medical negligence cases.

Difficulties sometimes arise when trying to decide whether an organisation or individual owed a duty of care to a claimant. In other words, was the defendant responsible for the plaintiff’s safety when a specific incident occurred?

Hospitals have a non-delegable duty of care, meaning they are almost always responsible for patients’ wellbeing. Nevertheless, ruling whether this obligation has been breached is more difficult.

Claimants must show a medical practitioner fell well below the accepted standards of care and that their failings led to the injuries in question.

With regional and remote areas having less access to some health care services, should there be a lower benchmark to judge hospitals’ duty of care to patients?

Are standards lower for country hospitals?

The short answer is no. Medical professionals are still expected to comply with the same standards of conduct as their counterparts in major cities.

This topic was covered in a recent case that went before a NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Australian judges regularly refer to rulings and authority cases in other states, so the decision could have implications in Queensland.

In Health Care Complaints Commission v Simonson, a doctor was accused of several failings in his treatment of patients.

His lawyers blamed the rural hospital environment, claiming some processes that can be conducted in the city simply weren’t possible in the country.

However, the tribunal said: “The same general standards of conduct apply to practitioners in regional and rural areas as apply to practitioners in metropolitan areas.

“Obviously, inability to have ready access to sophisticated diagnostic equipment or specialist assistance will impact upon the way in which they practice medicine, but the underlying general standard remains the same.”

Would you like to know more about medical negligence claims in Queensland? Contact a member of our team today.

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