Friday, 13 October 2023, 14:02
Colleagues have baptised him the "scourge" of the SAS (the Andalusian health service). Francisco Damián Vázquez, a lawyer specialising in healthcare law, has been in charge of the legal services of the patient defence association (Defensor del Paciente) in Malaga for almost three decades. Rarely a week goes by without a new sentence in which the organisation achieves justice in cases of medical negligence.
-I understand you are called 'the scourge of the SAS'; how do you feel about that nickname?
-Yes, there are many clients and colleagues who call me that because we have won many cases of claims against the Andalusian health service. I am proud of this nickname because through the association I defend people who are going through real tragedies, in many cases involving death or patients who suffer very serious effects of medical negligence. I have been specialising in this area for more than 30 years and for 25 years as a legal collaborator of the patient defence association, with cases that are not so easy to prove; it is a great satisfaction to see justice done, even if the damage is irreparable.
-What led you to specialise in this type of litigation?
-It was as I was beginning my professional work that I spoke to the patient defence association, created by Carmen Flores. She is the president and a woman who is a great fighter and selflessly devoted to the cause of healthcare negligence, precisely because of the great lack of defence that existed at the time for victims and which she experienced firsthand with the death of her son after several cases of medical negligence. They were looking for a collaborating lawyer in the area of eastern Andalucía. And here I am still today.
-Which fields are the most complained about in Malaga?
-There are many, but we generally receive complaints about gynaecology, related to care during childbirth; about accident and emergency departments, related to wrongful discharges and omission of tests and controls, with cases in which the patient has been discharged and has died within hours of arriving home. There are also complaints related to cosmetic surgery, especially in the Costa del Sol area; and many situations related to diagnostic errors in traumatology. Another problem we are seeing, especially in recent times, is the delay in the diagnosis of cancer cases, with deaths and serious complications. These tests cannot be delayed as happened in the case of a patient who died that went to court recently; it took about ten months to carry out the tests, despite his insistence and the complaints he made. By the time he got the result he was already stage four. This is what cannot be allowed.
-Are there times of the year when these complaints increase?
-In Malaga there are problems that are endemic, such as waiting lists and overcrowded emergency departments. As soon as January and February arrive, with the flu, the emergency rooms will be overcrowded again; in summer the same thing happens because of the lack of doctors. I have been doing this for more than 25 years and it seems like the eternal Groundhog Day; it always happens again and again. This happens especially in the public health system, where there is a shortage of rooms and professionals cannot cope with the volume of patients, which is a trigger for serious negligence.
-Are we suffering from the consequences of the overloading of healthcare provision?
-The workloads of professionals are a breeding ground for this. Lack of resources, lack of time, haste, wrongful discharges, failure to examine a patient properly and not keeping investigating until a diagnosis is found.... We have seen it this summer, which has been very bad, with deaths within hours of leaving hospital due to wrongful discharges. We have even received complaints from professionals denouncing this lack of resources, warning that, in this scenario, something could happen. This is unacceptable when we are talking about health and human life, one of the fundamental rights of Spain's Constitution.
-Are these cases becoming more and more common?
-Much to our regret, they are progressively increasing year after year. In Andalucía we had in 2022 a total of 2,671 cases of alleged medical negligence and Malaga province is behind Seville, in the lead, with 725 complaints. Unfortunately, we are also in the ranking of the hospitals with the most complaints at Andalucía level, with the Virgen de la Victoria in second place and the Regional Universitario in third. This is data from the latest report of the patient defence association and I worry that, from what we are already seeing, next year will be worse. We have filed many complaints about Covid, among other issues, and we are noticing that the standstill caused by the pandemic has led to many misdiagnoses and delays with very serious consequences. In terms of rulings, we are also seeing that there are more and more cases of convictions, or claims against medical insurers that we are taking through civil proceedings.
-So in short, you don't exactly have much free time.
-Well, not much, but I'm happy. It is a very vocational job, which I love and which gives me a lot of satisfaction when the cases turn out well. I am proud to be part of an organisation that, by fighting for all these causes, has achieved important milestones and helped bring in procedures that were really needed. Our motto is that we must demand that the negligence suffered by a person and, in turn, by those around them, does not happen again. And there should be no fear of reprisals when you see that things have not been done properly.
-What cases would you highlight?
-There was a very sad case we had of a man who went to the casualty department in Antequera and was left in a waiting room for hours. Supposedly they called him over the loudspeaker and marked him down as voluntary discharge. It turned out that this person, whose name was Ángel, had been suffering a stroke for five hours and had been left waiting. He was taken to another hospital but it was too late and he died. As a result, we managed to change the SAS procedure and establish the Ángel Code to identify and monitor patients in the emergency department. We also managed to get a section included in the civil procedure law so lawyers can access medical records in preliminary proceedings before filing a civil lawsuit.
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