Life Esidimeni

The Life Esidimeni tragedy involved the deaths of 144 psychiatric patients following their transfer out of private hospital facilities.

The deadly cost-cutting exercise by the Gauteng Health Department has been described as the “greatest cause of human rights violation since the dawn of our democracy”.

What actually happened?

In 2015 and 2016, 1,711 people were removed from mental health facilities run by Life Healthcare Group. They were transferred to unlicenced and ill-equipped hospitals and non-governmental organisations.

The change in providers and the way in which the transfers were managed culminated in 144 deaths, as well as trauma and poor health outcomes for many of the patients who survived.

So chaotic were the removals that some patients are still unaccounted for.

An enquiry indicated that the deaths occurred as a result of gross negligence. For example, causes included mistreatment, pneumonia, dehydration and starvation.

Payout for families of victims

In March 2018, following an arbitration hearing, retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke ruled that the patients were treated in a manner that “did not befit human beings”.

He ordered the government to pay R1.2 million to the families of each of the victims.

The payment was made up of R20,000 for funeral expenses‚ R180,000 for shock and psychological trauma and R1 million in constitutional damages.

Low standards of psychiatric care in South Africa

The tragedy highlighted the massive underfunding and extremely low standards of care and treatment in public psychiatric hospitals and wards throughout South Africa.

At Soweto’s vast Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, packed psychiatric wards are more like dormitories than treatment facilities, say healthcare experts.

A Times Live article noted that often, patients are restrained using medical bandages. They may be left for days with no treatment and little food or water.

In juvenile mental health facilities throughout the country, patients are housed in prison-like conditions where reports of rape and assault are common.

State and private system under-resourced and over-whelmed

According to the South African Depression and Support Group (SADAG), there are gaping holes in the safety net for people with mental health conditions. These range from substance abuse and anxiety to severe illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In an exclusive report, The Sunday Times noted that up to three-quarters of South Africans with mental illnesses receive no medical treatment or care. Even when they do, the services are severely limited.

Shortcomings include:

  • 100% occupancy rates and severe overcrowding on hospital wards
  • overwhelmed clinics with poorly trained staff
  • short supply of state-employed psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses
  • too few beds in government hospitals for acutely ill patients
  • frequent shortages of medication in hospitals and clinics
  • failure to follow up and maintain treatment.

Statistics on malpractice hard to find

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how care for patients often falls short of what is reasonable.

Unfortunately, statistics on malpractice in these settings are hard to come by.

Too often, malpractice claims aren’t pursued in psychiatric cases, even where clear, gross negligence or malpractice has occurred.

This is partly because family members and patients are hesitant to pursue claims due to societal taboos surrounding mental illness.

It’s also because of unreasonably low norms and expectations of care among staff and patients in state psychiatric facilities.

It shouldn’t take an incident as horrific as the Life Esidimeni tragedy to make people realise the levels of care are unacceptable, that medical malpractice is rife and that it’s time for change.

What constitutes malpractice?

Medical malpractice occurs when a negligent act or omission by a medical professional results in personal injury to a patient and when the medical professional’s actions don’t meet accepted standards of practice.

It’s not only doctors who may be responsible for medical malpractice. Negligence by nurses, dentists, physiotherapists, osteopaths and people working in facilities like nursing homes may also result in personal injury.

Examples of medical malpractice in both psychiatric and general medicine include:

  • failure to properly treat wounds
  • failure to ensure hydration
  • errors during diagnosis, treatment and management of health conditions
  • prescribing errors
  • failure to obtain informed consent from a patient or guardian.

Making a claim for medical malpractice

If you believe you or a close family member has been injured due to medical malpractice or negligence, you may have a claim against the relevant Department of Health, the hospital and/or the relevant medical professional.

If you believe you’re a victim of medical negligence, you have the right to look at your own medical records, charts and information. These records can help you build a solid case.

It’s important to know what outcome you hope to get by pursuing a medical malpractice case, which may be lengthy.

If you wish to complain and help protect others from similar malpractice, consult the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

If you seek financial restitution for the harm you’ve suffered, contact us.


What we offer at DSC Attorneys

At DSC Attorneys, we specialise in personal injury claims and our medico-legal team has extensive experience in handling medical malpractice claims, such as claims for medical malpractice in South African psychiatric wards and hospitals.

We can assess your claim, help prepare supporting evidence and represent you in legal proceedings, giving you the best chance of receiving the compensation you deserve. We work on a no-win, no-fee basis.

See if you have a claim

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