Word of the Day: Malpractice
by Tan Chu Chze
‘MALPRACTICE’ is an easy word to split into its components and decipher. The first half, ‘mal-‘ means “bad”, which gives rise to words like ‘malfunction’, ‘malice’, or ‘malaria’. ‘Practice’, I assume, doesn’t need much explanation.
Put two and two together and you have ‘malpractice’ meaning “bad practice”.
In practice, however, the meaning of ‘malpractice’ is more refined. It doesn’t refer to any old kind of “practice”. Unlike its root form, ‘malpractice’ depends on only one particular meaning of ‘practice’: the professional engagement of certain disciplines like medicine or law. That is why we don’t really use ‘malpractice’ to describe piano rehearsals, soccer drills, or yoga lessons gone wrong.
More specifically, ‘malpractice’ is most often used to mean “not doing your job properly”, particularly when it results in harm to other people. The most familiar kind of malpractice is medical malpractice. That is, when doctors – largely out of negligence – hurt rather than heal.
Therein lies a certain irony about it: ‘Malpractice’ is an aggressive, accusatory word. It hangs out in the company of words like ‘lawyer’, ‘lawsuit’, and ‘sue’ like so:
“I am going to call my lawyer to file a lawsuit and sue you for malpractice.”
In fact, ‘malpractice’ is almost exclusively used in such a tone. You will probably never hear an accused apologise for malpractice. That will be like shooting oneself in the foot. If you want to admit to a mistake, you would use ‘lapse’ instead.
This is where Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was on the mark in his depiction of medical practice vis-a-vis malpractice. ‘Malpractice’, or lawsuits regarding malpractice, behave very much like attacks. It thus seems only natural that doctors should pre-empt aggressions by employing “defensive medicine” to “protect themselves from liability”.
Such posturing is rather unpleasant and is exactly the relationship we shouldn’t hope to have with our healthcare providers. They are our artillery in the fight against ailments, not another enemy. I know I wouldn’t want my doctors to give me minimal care because they scared kena charge; I hope they give me maximal care because, well, they care.
For this reason, the Supreme Court is changing the mode of legal recourse a person can take when affected by such ‘malpractice’. Not happy with your doctor? Try mediation first.
And if that doesn’t work out, only then the judge will lead the case. So you don’t have to keep pointing fingers and finding faults. Don’t worry, there will be medical experts to advise the judge.
Hopefully, these measures work not only to take the bite out of an angry patient, but also the fear out of the threatened doctor. A true professional shouldn’t hesitate to take responsibility for their lapses, after all. Remember how Singapore General Hospital manned up to the Hepatitis C outbreak? That’s the kind of practice that should be commended.
Then maybe we could even give it a name. Call it ‘eupractice‘.
That would be beautiful.
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