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Doctors have been acquitted in one malpractice trial after another. In August 2008 an obstetrician in Fukushima Prefecture was found innocent in the death of a woman from blood loss during a Caesarean operation. In November that year a Kyorin University doctor who did not realize a cotton-candy stick he had removed from a 4-year-old boy’s throat had penetrated the boy’s brain, was acquitted of negligence causing the boy’s death. In March 2009 a doctor at Tokyo Women’s Medical University was found not guilty in the death of a 12-year-old girl who underwent a heart operation.

These cases show that criminal investigation into medical accidents has limits and carries the risk of causing difficulties for both doctors and families of deceased patients. It is important that investigative authorities distinguish clearly between criminal acts on the part of doctors and what has resulted from a doctor’s actions during normal medical treatment. They should refrain from launching a criminal investigation unless malicious or grave negligence on the part of doctors is undeniable.

Fair and objective noncriminal investigation would be far more effective in unraveling the truth about malpractice cases. This is what malpractice victims or their families should want and demand. Such investigations would also be instrumental in the prevention of similar cases as well as helpful in evaluating compensation for victims.

In June 2008, the health and welfare ministry made public a proposal to establish a medical safety investigation committee composed of doctors, lawyers and representatives of patients. It would compile reports on malpractice cases by interviewing doctors and other medical workers, and analyzing medical records and autopsy results. But the proposal has met strong opposition from doctors because it says the committee would notify the police if it detects a significant deviation from normal medical procedure.

The ministry has therefore abandoned the submission of a related bill to the Diet. While the proposal is stalled, it is hoped that hospitals will fully utilize their own investigation committees and make public investigation results. This will help the medical world regain people’s trust in it.

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