Health & Healthcare

The role and major challenges of a medical legal counsel

19 Dec 2016, by Thomas Beauchamp

Legal counsel plays a key role in patient care and experience and we are delighted to have Fiona Burns, Legal Counsel, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service presenting an address at the 2017 Medico Legal Congress. Fiona will discuss the essential role of documentation in providing clinicians and patients with legal support.

Fiona Burns

At Informa Insights, we had the opportunity to interview Fiona Burns prior to the event.

Q: Can you describe the most rewarding and also the most challenging parts of your role as Legal Counsel at Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service?

The most rewarding is receiving an urgent telephone call from a doctor or nurse and providing legal advice which enables them to provide patient care, so supporting the clinicians ultimately supports patient care. The challenges for 2017 will be the opening of the new Sunshine Coast University Hospital adding another facility to my portfolio!

Q: You are going to present an address based around Memories, Light the Corner of my Mind……Or Do They? Without giving too much away about your upcoming presentation, are you able to share your thoughts on true, recovered and false memories and the patient experience?

My interest in this area arose from my involvement in coronial investigations and inquests and responding to Health Ombudsman complaints where recollections of traumatic events are not reflected by the documentation or the evidence of other witnesses. My research into this has lead me to the hypothesis that people tend to rewrite their history in their own minds to place themselves in a position of the truly just and the need to be the good guy can overcome the truth the longer the distance between the event and recall. This is why documentation is essential, as the chances of ever knowing what really went on should not be dependent on a ‘memory’.

Q: Are you able to discuss in general terms the impact of patient memory vs contemporaneous documentation upon the complaints process?

As the saying goes ‘if it’s not written down it didn’t happen’. Contemporaneous documentation carries evidentiary weight over a memory that may be recalled or false and told to a complaints body two years later or required at an inquest four years after the clinical incident.

Q: Are there any presentations from the 26th Annual Medico Legal Congress that you are particularly looking forward to? 

There are a number I’m looking forward to, The Emergency Department: A laboratory of error, Identifying Medico-Legal Risks of Ageing Practitioners and in particular the panel discussion on Mental Health issues and Health Practitioners as I have quite a bit of involvement in these two areas and we can certainly improve how we respond and support health practitioners.

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