A doctor who covers for a colleague has an immediate legal duty to care for his colleague’s patients whilst on call.

This was recently confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal in a case where a doctor (gynaecologist/obstetrician) agreed to cover for a colleague. The doctor positively responded to a telephone call from a midwife at 10h30 informing him that his colleague’s patient had been admitted to the hospital at 10h00 for labour. The doctor did not examine the patient for more than 11 hours after she was admitted to the hospital. He only arrived at the hospital at 21h20 after he was informed that she was ready to deliver her baby.

The doctor argued that it was common practice in the medical profession for one doctor to cover for another when the latter was unavailable. He was merely on standby for any emergency that could arise during the absence of his colleague and, therefore, he did not assume normal responsibility for the patient. As a result, he alleged, there was never a doctor-patient relationship between him and the patient in labour until he arrived at the hospital to deliver her baby. The doctor conceded that if it was his patient, he would normally have examined her at the hospital within 3 to 4 hours of her admission.

The Court disagreed with the doctor’s argument and confirmed that a legal duty of care to the patient arose immediately when he acceded to the request to cover for his colleague and when he positively responded to the call from the midwife at 10h30. He was responsible for the patient and her baby from 10h30.

The doctor’s position that he did not regard the patient as his patient and, therefore, did not examine her before 21h20 was grossly negligent. A reasonable covering doctor would have visited the patient shortly after her admission to create a doctor-patient relationship and to assure her that, in the absence of her own doctor, he was standing in and would take good care of her.

The case is Life Healthcare Group (Pty) Ltd v Dr Abdool Samad Suliman