The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) has recognised the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak and provided special guidelines that will apply during the pandemic. The HPCSA will continue to operate, but with restrictions. For example, professional conduct inquiries and in-person mediations will be suspended during the lockdown period. Complaints will still be processed, but the council will take into account the extraordinary pressures and unusual circumstances created by the pandemic, in assessing complaints.
The potential need for many more healthcare practitioners to assist with the pandemic is recognised, and therefore practitioners who were on the non-clinical register or applied for voluntary erasure within the past 5 years will be considered for restoration to the clinical register without needing to meet further requirements. Practitioners coming back into practice may need to consider whether their professional liability insurance cover is adequate (and if they don’t have insurance, they may need to obtain insurance cover).
Practitioners need to keep abreast of government guidelines relating to the treatment of COVID-19 patients, since the pandemic presents unique challenges. One example where the guidelines related to COVID-19 patients is different relates to dealing with the mortal remains of patients who have passed away due to this disease. The situation is still unfolding and guidance may change as scientific and medical information relating to the disease increases.
The prohibition on specialist doctors acting outside of their specialities will also be lifted, within reason. However, healthcare practitioners who provide healthcare services outside the usual scope of their practice must only do so after giving due regard to their ability to provide such assistance with reasonable skills and based on a healthcare practitioner’s education, training and experience. Under the COVID-19 guidelines, if a specialist provides the service of a general practitioner, where needed, they cannot charge a specialist fee, but must charge a fee not higher than what a general practitioner would have charged for that service.
Healthcare practitioners must always act reasonably. The actions of a doctor, for example, will be judged against the standard of the reasonable doctor (not the reasonable layperson), in the specific circumstances.
Healthcare practitioners are now allowed to offer telemedicine and telehealth services more freely in that a prior in-person relationship with a patient is not required before telehealth services are provided, if this is in the best interests of the patient. However the ethical rules of conduct still apply, and practitioners are urged by the council not to over-service or overcharge patients when providing telehealth services.
Labour law guidelines should also be remembered. Employers must provide employees with a safe working environment, and in the case of the healthcare industry, this would include Personal Protective Equipment.
Finally, healthcare practitioners are encouraged to focus on taking care of their own physical and mental wellbeing, because the road ahead may be long and the end to the pandemic may be many months away.