Whether they are lawyers, engineers or doctors, workers in Quebec who are members of a professional order are all subject to a code of ethics that governs their profession. Established to protect the public, these codes set out the obligations and responsibilities of the professionals, whose duties often place them in positions of power.

Doctors practising in Quebec must follow the Code of Ethics of Physicians, which sets out the obligations they have towards their patients. The obligations set out in the Code are meant to help ensure the safety, accessibility and quality of care offered throughout Quebec.

In Quebec courts, breaching an obligation found in the Code of Ethics of Physicians may constitute a civil fault that exposes the doctor to liability in certain situations. When a patient believes that they have been wronged and takes civil action against a member of the Collège des médecins du Québec, the courts must determine whether the doctor is at fault. The Code is one of the normative sources the courts may use to rule on the issue.

What are the main professional obligations and responsibilities set out in the Code of Ethics of Physicians? It’s important to be aware of them in order to determine whether you or your loved one have truly been harmed by a health professional and whether you should take legal action.

Find out about these obligations in this article compiled by our health lawyers.

The obligations doctors have towards patients

Doctors have very broad responsibilities when it comes to patients. Not only are they responsible for their own medical acts, but they can also sometimes be held responsible for the instructions they give to their subordinates (nursing staff, students, residents, etc.).

Doctors’ obligations can be divided into four categories:

  • Diagnosis and treatment
  • Informing the patient
  • Patient consent
  • Confidentiality and professional secrecy

Doctors must diagnose and treat patients

In health law, with some exceptions, doctors have an obligation of means (and not an obligation of result) towards their patients. That means they must take the appropriate steps to make the most accurate diagnoses possible, provide adequate treatments and follow up with each patient. These guidelines are intended to reduce the number of victims of medical malpractice, among other things.
Doctors must act according to current scientific data and use treatments that are considered effective by their peers and the scientific community in general.

Doctors must also provide their patients with thorough, attentive care. 

However, doctors must stay within the limits of their expertise. When in doubt, they are obliged to inform themselves further or refer the patient to a specialist.

Doctors’ treatment obligations also include prescribing the right medication, informing patients of the advantages, disadvantages and risks of treatment as well as any alternatives, and following up with patients in an adequate and timely manner. That means that after treating a patient, the doctor in question must either provide the necessary medical follow-up or ensure that another health professional can do so.

Doctors must inform patients

Doctors are required to give patients the information they need in order to give free and informed consent.

Doctors must provide their patients with all relevant information regarding: 

  • The diagnosis
  • The nature of the treatment, its purpose and severity
  • The risks associated with the treatment
  • Alternatives to the treatment

Doctors’ duty to provide information also includes answering the patient’s questions, as well as questions asked by the people who make medical decisions for the patient and the parents of minors under the age of 14.

Doctors must inform the patient of the treatment’s realistic probability of success considering their particular health conditions. They must also inform the patient of any negative repercussions the treatment may have.

In general, it would be impossible to require doctors to disclose every single possible risk of a treatment. They must, however, disclose the foreseeable risks that are likely to occur as well as any rare risks that could have severe consequences on the patient’s condition.
It’s important to note that the level of information doctors are required to give can vary depending on the circumstances and the patient. For some types of treatment (experimental treatments, cosmetic surgery and non-therapeutic procedures, for example), doctors are expected to give a detailed list of all the possible risks involved.

Doctors must obtain the patient’s free and informed consent

Doctors’ obligation to inform patients stems from their duty to provide all the information and data needed for patients to make an informed decision about proposed treatment and care. 

It’s important to remember that obtaining informed consent from the patient is an ongoing process. That’s why the patient must be kept updated on all new information about their condition and care before they make the decision to accept or refuse medical treatment.

Doctors must maintain professional secrecy 

Doctors must respect patient confidentiality. They must not divulge information revealed by a patient or share private information they obtain in the course of their work.

Doctors may only disclose information that has been confided to them without breaching the Code if their patient has waived confidentiality or if the law permits them to do so. For example, according to the Code of Ethics, doctors may be authorized to disclose confidential information if the patient requests it or if the patient’s or other people’s health or safety is at risk.

Do you believe that a doctor has violated their obligations to you or a loved one?

As you now know, every doctor practising in Quebec must respect the code of ethics that governs their profession. Any person who believes they have been a victim of a violation of the Code may file a complaint with the Collège des médecins, which will then conduct an investigation to determine whether the professional in question should be brought before the disciplinary committee. However, it’s important to understand that the Collège’s mission is to protect the public, not to provide compensation for the damage caused.

The only way to obtain compensation is to file a civil suit in court.

Do you believe that a doctor has violated their obligations to you or a loved one? At MedLegal, our medical liability service is designed specifically for health care system users who have fallen victim to medical malpractice. Our comprehensive approach provides personalized legal advice and guidance throughout the claims process, from initial information gathering to possible litigation.

Contact us today to discuss your situation with a lawyer!

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