From the past to the nowadays: clinical negligence in the history of mankind

The responsibility of doctors for errors and omissions in various historical periods was different and depended on social justice, religious beliefs, moral and ethical standards and the level of development of medical science.

In ancient times healing was equated to the action of supernatural power. There was the absolute responsibility on the healer for the patient’s death. The code of laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) indicated various measures of responsibilities the doctors took. For example, when a slaveholder was harmed by the doctor, the healer’s hand was cut off (sometimes a healer was even deprived of life); a failed treatment of a medical servant was obliged to compensate the owner of its value or to give another slave. In Egypt, doctors should have been conducting their business strictly in accordance of the notes and regulations of the Holy Book. If the doctor treated a patient in full accordance with this set of rules, he was free from liability, even in the case of death of the patient.

Rome Law was punishing doctors for blunders. The concept of ‘medical error in Roman law included inexperience, carelessness and lack of medical care. However, Roman law considered the possibility of death of the patient as a result of severe disease. For killing people, selling of poisonous concentrations to poison people, for an abortion and castration doctors were punished in the same way as any other citizens. Differentiation of intent and errors were gradually reflected in the legislation of all the European countries, although the legal responsibility of doctors in different states dared differently.

In ancient Greece, the medical art was appreciated, and the doctor’s credibility was high. Slaveholders and rich merchants received the necessary services from itinerant physicians. The slaves and the poor were actually deprived of medical care. The doctor was freed from the punishment, if the patient died through no fault of the doctor.

Nowadays, despite the fact that the concepts of medical errors and negligence are quite blurred from a legal standpoint, the state of affairs has changed. Yes, the  UK budget spendings on cases associated with clinical negligence account for £780ml. annually, and according to, a prominent legal startup, running a comprehensive database of medical negligence solicitors, the number of clinical negligence cases is slowly increasing, the draconian measures are not there.

Currently, there are two main error groups:

  1. Medical error – an accident in which a doctor violates the rules of science or medical practices in such circumstances that he could not and should not have foreseen the consequences of his actions. This error could be due to lack of facilities and equipment, the difficult situation in which the acting physician finds himself, and other circumstances, lying outside the doctor’s will.
  2. Negligence error – careless healing, when the doctor did not foresee the dangerous outcome, though, he should have known of harmful effects, as a result of violation of rules or methods of medical science. In this case a doctor could have foreseen the problem, but he thoughtlessly hoped to prevent the consequences of his actions.

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