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Medical negligence and malpractice is rife in Kenya’s health facilities, a Public Inquiry reports

The recently launched report[i] of a public inquiry into violations of sexual and reproductive health rights in Kenya has highlighted the existence of widespread medical negligence and malpractice in health institutions. Indeed many of the complaints of mistreatment in health facilities, especially those raised by former obstetric patients, frequently bordered on medical negligence and malpractice. Medical negligence and malpractice interfere with the quality of care received by patients, and deny them enjoyment of the right to the highest standard of health care which is their constitutional right.

(Women are being counselled at a RH clinic. Picture source: J Mati)

Medical negligence can be defined as the commission of an act that a prudent person would not have done or the omission of a duty that a prudent person would have fulfilled, resulting in injury or harm to another person (patient)[ii]. Medical malpractice means bad, wrong, or injudicious treatment of a patient professionally, which results in injury, unnecessary suffering, or death. Malpractice and negligence may occur through omission of a necessary act as well as commission of an unwise or negligent act[iii]. This may be in the form of misdiagnosis, wrong decisions and treatment, prescription errors, and medical or surgical complications, all of which may result in suffering, permanent injury or death.

In Kenya, medical, nursing and midwifery practices are regulated by statutory authorities, including the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board[iv] (established under Cap 253 Laws of Kenya), the Nursing Council of Kenya[v] (established under the Nurses Act Cap 257 Laws of Kenya) and the Clinical Officers Council (established under the Clinical Officers [Training, Registration and Licensing] Act Cap 260 Laws of Kenya)[vi]. These bodies are obliged to protect members of the public by ensuring that the medical practitioners (including dentists), nurses and midwives, and clinical officers are properly qualified, that they perform their services to patients with skill and diligence, and that they observe at all times high moral and ethical standards

Evidence regarding alleged mistreatment in health institutions was received at all sittings of the Inquiry, and among the witnesses raising complaints of medical negligence and malpractice the majority were obstetric cases that suffered various types of injury and suffering to themselves and their babies. Complaints of long waiting periods and delays in getting attended to in health facilities were common. Sometimes this was occasioned by doctors or midwives on call refusing to come when summoned, or due to shortage of staff. Associated with the above were complaints of negligent management of labour resulting in stillbirth, mentally handicapped child and maternal death. There were other complaints of persons who had been subjected to various surgical procedures such hysterectomy without their consent (See below). In spite of this, hardly any of the complaints had been reported to the regulatory authorities.

Selected examples of specific complaints of medical negligence and malpractice:

· Denial of information- failure to explain the nature of illness or injury and the modality of treatment and its consequences. In particular, there was inadequate information given to the patients before and after surgery.

 Sterilisation without consent:

A mother of three was admitted with abruptio placenta at a Mission Hospital, where she was later taken to theatre for C Section and, unknown to her, bilateral tubal ligation was carried out. She was not informed of the latter and since she did not wish to conceive shortly after the operation she commenced on a family planning method. She had taken two doses of Depo Provera when a doctor (elsewhere) happened to read her discharge card which showed she had actually been sterilised!

· Case of malpractice-  Doctor who was drunk;

A case of ruptured uterus and fetal death:

A woman was admitted at a public District Hospital in early labour. She had previously delivered by C Section and so was asked to sign consent for repeat CS which she did. However, a doctor who was drunk saw her in the Labour Ward and asked her to begin pushing the baby, without any success. He then tried unsuccessfully to apply forceps. By the time she eventually was taken to the operating theatre her uterus had already ruptured, the baby had died, and she subsequently developed difficulty in controlling urine (?Vesico Vaginal Fistula). She has not conceived since then and she could as well have had a hysterectomy done.

· Case of medical negligence- denial of services

Forgotten foreign bodies after surgery:

A relative told of the case of a woman who had a C section performed by a doctor during which an abdominal pack was (accidentally) forgotten in the abdomen. When she returned 2 weeks later complaining of abdominal pain and swelling she was told she needed another operation to remove a foreign body which required further payment. This could not be done because she did not have any more money. The patient died of complications most probably associated with the foreign body.

 Another case was that of a single mother of two who delivered normally at a Health Centre (Level 3). An episiotomy had been performed and a swab left in the vagina which should have been removed after a few hours. However, the patient was not informed about it, and the swab was left in for 2 weeks. By that time infection had set in and she had also developed faecal incontinence (?RVF). She is now ashamed of her condition and has not mentioned it to anyone except her mother. [It is a possibility that she suffered rectal injury when the episiotomy incision was made].

 · Negligent management- failure to apply standard procedures:

Management of labour in a HIV+ woman did not conform to guidelines for prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV infection: An HIV+ woman was admitted at a public District Hospital with ruptured membranes. Her husband, also HIV positive, told the staff that they had been advised by another doctor that the delivery should be by CS, but this was declined, besides, she was not given ARV therapy as instructed in the PMTCT guidelines. Instead, she was allowed to have a prolonged labour, delivering a fresh stillborn child.

Failure to give an essential prophylaxis:

A primigravida at term was admitted in a private hospital where she had made several antenatal visits. Her labour was uneventful, delivering a healthy male child. However, although she had been informed at the same hospital that she was Rhesus Negative she was not offered a standard vaccine, anti-D gamma globulin to protect against Rhesus iso-immunisation. In addition, she was not advised what to do in case of a subsequent pregnancy.

· Negligent management of labour, doctor refused to come to the hospital when summoned:

A mother of three was admitted to a public District Hospital in labour where she remained for 48 hours without delivery mainly because the only doctor who could do a C Section refused to come. When eventually the doctor came she was taken to theatre, delivered of a very depressed child who breathed after prolonged resuscitation, but the mother died on the table. The child is now intellectually handicapped.

· Negligent management- Hysterectomy performed without consent

Hysterectomy performed without consent on a disabled person:

A woman with dwarfism (possibly achondroplasia) was diagnosed with uterine fibroids at a provincial Hospital and advised she needed an operation to remove the fibroids. She was taken to theatre but afterwards was not explained what had been done. When three weeks later she realised that a hysterectomy had been performed she sought explanation from the doctor. She was taken aback when the doctor wondered aloud if in her condition she really expected to get a baby!

Hysterectomy performed in a woman diagnosed with an ovarian cyst:

A married woman, a mother of four girls had hope that a boy would come someday. She was seen at a Provincial Hospital complaining of abdominal pain, where an ovarian cyst was diagnosed and confirmed by an ultrasound scan. She was advised to undergo an operation in order to remove the cyst; at no time was possibility of a hysterectomy mentioned. “Later when I read the discharge summary it stated that the uterus had a fibroid and a hysterectomy was performed. That shattered our hope for another child, perhaps a son”. She has contemplated suing the doctor but does not have the resources to do so.

Hysterectomy performed possibly because of intractable post-partum haemorrhage:

A woman in her first pregnancy was under care of a private obstetrician who saw her several times during pregnancy. When she went two weeks past the due date he admitted her at a private hospital for induction of labour, but for three days labour did not set in. However, when labour started on the fourth day her doctor was nowhere to be found; it was not until the next day that he appeared in the middle of the night and attempted to deliver her by vacuum extraction, but this was abandoned because there was a lot of bleeding. She was then taken to theatre and a CS was performed- a baby boy weighing 4kg. When she was returned to the ward the bleeding continued and had to be returned to theatre again, but was not told what was done there. “What annoyed me the most was that the details of my operations were only made known to my husband when he went to clear the bills, and then it was not until three months later that my husband actually informed me of the loss of my uterus. After some years, my husband left me for another woman and to have more children. I contemplated suing the obstetrician, but another doctor dissuaded me saying whatever was done was to save my life”.

Conclusions

The Public Inquiry report makes specific recommendations addressing the various aspects of maltreatment, medical negligence and malpractice in health institutions. It specifically calls on the Government to implement the provisions of Article 43 (1a) in the Constitution of Kenya (2010) and to ensure that health facilities at all levels are adequately staffed and equipped to provide quality health services.

The Ministry of Health and health professional regulatory bodies should ensure adherence to internationally accepted ethical standards and guidelines that govern medical practice with a view to eliminating the rampant cases of mistreatment, medical negligence and malpractice, in health facilities. The codes of practice must incorporate the obligations of health care providers to their patients, and should outline the rights of the patient with clear penalties spelt out in cases where the provisions are not adhered to. The government must make it mandatory that all health facilities establish complaint mechanisms aimed to enable clients forward their complaints to the relevant authorities for action in cases where they feel violated.

Finally, there is urgent need to increase the number of health care providers, across the country. Health training institutions have a duty to inculcate among their trainees high moral standards and respect for patients’ rights, including the right to information and informed consent. The government should recruit, train, employ and deploy more health personnel, and strengthen supervision, with a view to address the current shortage that is being experienced throughout the country.


[i]Kenya National Commission on Human Rights: A Report of the Public Inquiry into Violations of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in Kenya, April 2012.

[ii]Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.

 [iii] Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier.

 

Human Rights Issues in maternal health care in Kenya: Do Kenyan women enjoy the right to maternal health?

The findings of a recent Public Inquiry into violations of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) rights in Kenya highlight several factors which underlie the high and increasing rates of maternal mortality in Kenya. This inquiry undertaken by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) during 2011 had the overall aim to establish the extent and nature of violation of sexual and reproductive health (including maternal health) rights and to recommend appropriate redress measures.

‘The Public Inquiry Panel receiving evidence from a witness in Kitale’ 12-13 July 2011’

Source: knhcr.org

Maternal health’ refers to the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period (usually up to 42 days). As such, the right to maternal health should encompass access to antenatal care services; delivery services, including delivery by caesarean section where necessary; essential newborn care services and postpartum care services especially during the first 48 hours of delivery. Provision of these services requires availability of trained service providers (midwives, nurses, doctors and clinical officers) at all times and the capacity of facilities to respond to emergency cases, adequate physical facilities, and adequate equipment and supplies including essential medicines and vaccines.

Improving maternal health is the fifth Millennium Development Goal (MDG5). It has two targets: 5.A: Reduce by three quarters between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality rate; and 5.B: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health. The indicators to show attainment of these targets are as follows: 5A- Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) and Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel; and 5B- Contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR); Adolescent birth rate; Antenatal care coverage; and Unmet need for family planning. Analysis of the latest available data on Target 5A shows that MMR in Kenya remains high and has not started showing any downward trend, nor has there been an increase in the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel. In the case of Target 5B, on the other hand, it is encouraging to note the recent rising trend in CPR which, if sustained, may get close to the figure projected for 2015.

The factors behind the high and increasing levels of maternal mortality in Kenya fall in the following broad categories: widespread poverty; limited access to health care services; limited availability of skilled attendance at childbirth including inadequate referral systems; and high prevalence of negative socio-cultural practices such as early marriage and FGM. A key cross-cutting factor is inadequacy of funding to the health sector, and disproportionate allocation for reproductive health services within the health budget.

The right to maternal health care services is recognized or implied in several international, regional and national instruments, which many African governments including the Government of Kenya have ratified. Among these are: The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); The International Conference on Population Development Programme of Action (1994); The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000); The Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (2006); Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) (2009); The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 (Article 43 (a); The National Reproductive Health Policy 2007; and The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011.

In these, the State is obliged to fulfill SRH Rights ‘progressively’, depending on the resources available to them. The state is obliged to show that it is making ‘measurable progresses’ towards the full realization of the SRH Rights and to restrain from adopting ‘regressive measures’. At the same time, there are those rights for which the state is under obligation to effect immediately, for instance, the obligation to respect an individual’s freedom to decide freely if, when and how often to reproduce and the obligation to ensure freedom from discrimination and from degrading treatment.

The core obligations that are relevant to SRH Rights, which states are under obligation to fulfill immediately, include ensuring:

  • Access to health facilities, goods and services on a non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable or marginalized groups;
  • Access to essential drugs, as defined under the WHO Action Programme on Essential Drugs
  • Equitable distribution of health facilities, goods and services including trained health personnel;
  • Availability of reproductive health services including maternal and child healthcare;

A human rights-based approach to reproductive health care recognizes that all human rights are universal, interrelated, indivisible, and interdependent and are inherent in all human beings. It acknowledges that sexual and reproductive rights cannot be realized without the realization of other broader human rights, for example, the right to information, privacy and confidentiality and education.

The status of maternal health rights is determined by the effectiveness maternal health care services at all levels, namely in terms of: accessibility, availability, quality, affordability and acceptability. From the Public Inquiry findings the following conclusions can be made:

  • The physical accessibility of delivery services is an important issue of concern especially in the arid and semi-arid zones where significant percentages of the population must travel long distances to access health facilities.
  • Many facilities lack transportation support for maternity emergencies. There was evidence that most facilities in rural areas were ill equipped to handle emergency deliveries and women who needed C-sections in small facilities often died or lost their babies because they could not be transferred to a higher level in good time.
  • Lack of safe abortion services in Kenya has resulted in those seeking termination of pregnancy to resort to crude and unsafe methods, often with fatal consequences. There is a lack of awareness regarding provisions in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 (Article 26(4)) among healthcare providers and the general public.
  • The quality of maternal health services countrywide remains an issue of serious concern. Some of the key quality issues that have been highlighted are: lack of basic supplies such as cotton wool, pads, gloves, syringes, surgical blades, linen to wrap babies, anaesthesia, disinfectants, medicines, bed sheets, and blankets; dirty and unhygienic conditions; women forced to share beds or sleep on the floor; and the lack of food and hot water for bathing, etc. Overall, the factors that undermine the quality of maternal health services in Kenya were summarized as: (a) Lack of supplies and equipment; (b) Understaffing and lack of training and supervision; (c) Negligence and unethical practices by health providers; and (d) Weak Referral System.
  • Non-affordability of services is a serious impediment to accessing maternal health care throughout the country. Witnesses testified that the high cost of hospital delivery, especially the fees charged at level 4 and 5 facilities, was a key hindrance to accessing skilled maternal health services.
  • Acceptability of maternal health services- evidence from the Inquiry indicated that some communities did not utilize skilled delivery services because of cultural restrictions, mainly taboos regarding attendance by male nurses, which was prevalent among the Muslims in upper Eastern and North Eastern Kenya, as well as among the Sabaot of Western Kenya. These cultural preferences, together with the chronic shortage of skilled professionals in these areas, and the non-affordability of fees for services, come out as the main factors that perpetuate the demand for the Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs).

Based on its findings the Public Inquiry concluded that women in Kenya continue to die or suffer disability due to preventable causes. The Inquiry notes that the causes of these deaths prevail against the backdrop of the myriad international and regional human rights frameworks and commitments that Kenya is a party to and the national legal, policy and institutional frameworks that are aimed at enhancing maternal health. From the foregoing therefore, the Public Inquiry concluded that Kenya is still far from realizing the maternal health rights and has made a number of recommendations to government and other stakeholders that are essential in working towards the realization of maternal health rights in Kenya, and the achievement of MDG5 and Vision 2030 goal.

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