Doctors Are Not Machines But Must Exercise Reasonable Care and Skill


Doctors are neither machines nor infallible, but patients are entitled to expect them to exercise a level of care and skill commensurate with their years of training. The High Court made that point in finding that two radiologists breached their duty of care in failing to spot signs of abnormality in a newborn baby.

The boy was 14 months old when he was diagnosed with development dysplasia of the hips, a relatively common abnormality in newborn children which can often be effectively treated if detected early enough. As it was, the condition had profound and irreversible consequences. Despite repeated bouts of surgery, he was only able to walk unsteadily as he approached his teens.

A clinical negligence claim was launched on his behalf against the NHS trust that bore responsibility for his neonatal care. It was argued that radiologists who reviewed X-rays taken of his abdomen when he was one day old should have identified signs of hip abnormality, thereby enabling earlier diagnosis and treatment.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the boy was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and stomach. The X-rays were taken after he suffered choking episodes in his incubator. No concerns had been raised about possible skeletal issues and the radiologists were not instructed to look for hip abnormality.

The Court found, however, that they were required to take a holistic approach to the X-rays and to consider each part of them with equal rigour. The signs of possible hip abnormality were sufficiently plain and evident from the X-rays that no reasonable and responsible radiologist would have failed to identify them. Other issues in the case would be considered at a further hearing, if not agreed.

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