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Even the Best and Most Caring GP Can Make Mistakes - High Court Ruling

Lives depend on the diagnostic skills of hard-working GPs and they would be the first to agree that, where negligent errors are made, it is only right that fair compensation is paid. In a case on point, the High Court found that a caring, compassionate and sympathetic doctor nevertheless let down a patient who was suffering from TB.

The 16-year-old girl had been suffering from a dry cough for some time before she attended the GP's surgery. For a week or more she had also been experiencing drenching night sweats. Noting that she was fasting during Ramadan, the GP diagnosed a respiratory tract infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics.

Her condition continued to deteriorate and, about three weeks after she saw the GP, a hospital MRI scan led to a firm diagnosis of TB. The disease resulted in damage to her brain and spinal cord, leaving her dependent on a wheelchair. Proceedings were launched against the GP on the basis that he should have referred her for a chest X-ray. It was asserted that, had he done so, her condition would have been diagnosed much earlier and a better outcome achieved.

Having worked at a mission hospital in Africa, the GP had a wealth of experience in treating infectious diseases, including HIV and TB. The Court found him a credible, honest and convincing witness who generally met the very highest standards of general practice. Although he had no recollection of the consultation and was entirely reliant on his notes of what was said and done, the Court rejected claims that he failed to physically examine his patient.

However, in failing to question the girl about her night sweats, the Court found that he fell below the standard of care to be expected of a reasonably competent GP. Had he elicited a full history from her, he would either have made arrangements for a chest X-ray or told her to come back to the surgery in a week's time. Issues concerning the valuation of the girl's claim and the extent, if any, to which the GP's breach of duty caused her injuries would be considered at a further hearing.

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