Can Doctors Go To Prison? (Medical Manslaughter Explained)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If a doctor makes a mistake there can be serious consequences for the patient that doctor was caring for. Medical errors can lead to prolonged hospital stays, increased suffering and in rare cases even death.

But when a doctor fails to deliver the required high standard of care, for whatever reason, can they go to prison?

If a doctor is grossly negligent and a patient dies as a result of their actions, the doctor can be charged with medical manslaughter and go to prison. Doctors can also go to prison if they wilfully neglect patients or intentionally cause harm to those they are caring for.

It is rare that a doctor will end up in jail as a result of their actions in a medical setting. After all, doctors are highly trained, intelligent, competent professionals who on the whole only want the best for their patients.

However, there are rare instances when individuals can fall far short of what would be expected of them. As a doctor myself, in this article I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore what happens when everything goes wrong in a patient’s care.

Can Doctors Be Charged With Manslaughter?

Manslaughter is a term for when one person kills another person but in a less culpable way than murder. It’s sort of one step below murder in a legal sense but is still a very serious crime in the eyes of the law.

Doctors can be charged with manslaughter if they are found to have behaved in a way that grossly breaches the standard of care expected of them, which resulted in the unlawful killing of another human being without there having been any intention to cause harm.

The key difference then between a doctor murdering a patient and being charged with manslaughter is that with manslaughter the doctor didn’t have any intention to harm the patient.

In incredibly rare circumstances, doctors have been known to murder patients. One of the most famous instances of this being the case of Harold Shipman. However, far more common is a situation in which a patient dies as a result of a doctor’s actions but without the doctor having had any malicious intent.

Two lawyers discussing a medical malpractice case outside of court

A recent notable case of a doctor being charged with manslaughter is that of GP Bala Kovvali. Bala Kovvali was a locum GP from India who was found guilty of medical manslaughter after failing to diagnose a 42-year-old man with diabetes.

Bala Kovvali was called to see the patient, who was presenting with confusion, sunken eyes, and thirst at his home in Sheffield. Bala Kovvali neglected to carry out even the most basic tests for diabetes that would have been expected in this situation and so as a result the patient sadly passed away overnight.

In this instance, the court decided that Bala Kovvali had not behaved in a manner consistent with how another GP would have acted in his situation, and so was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter and erased from the General Medical Council’s register.

Do Doctors Go To Prison If A Patient Dies?

If a patient a doctor is looking after dies, could the doctor end up in prison as a result of their involvement in the patient’s care?

A doctor will only go to prison following the death of one of their patients if they are found guilty of a serious crime, such as murder or medical manslaughter. It’s generally accepted patients frequently die as a result of disease or injuries and so doctors are only rarely charged with any wrongdoing.

The sad fact is that patients die all the time in hospitals. And so if a doctor went to jail every time a patient passed away we’d have no doctors left!

Modern medicine is generally a team sport. So, if something has gone wrong in a patient’s care then there are often numerous contributing factors and multiple errors that unfortunately all aligned culminating in a patient’s death.

This makes it very difficult, and unfair, to pin all the blame on one doctor or nurse, as they won’t have been the sole cause of the incredibly unfortunate event.

However, there are rare cases when it can be proven that one doctor is almost entirely to blame. And in such cases, it isn’t unlikely that they’ll be found guilty of either manslaughter or murder and so sent to prison.

One example of this happening is the case of Sudhanshu Garg. Sudhanshu Garg was a consultant urologist who worked at the Bradford Royal Infirmary in 2008. He was jailed for two years after admitting manslaughter over the death of a 37-year-old mother and altering notes to try to cover up his failings.

The 37-year-old woman died of heart and kidney failure as a result of a kidney stone which lead to a severe bacterial infection. During the investigation, Garg was found to have removed charts and altered the patient’s medical records.

He hadn’t acted with the required urgency, or in the correct manner, to stop the infection and so save the patient’s life. Because of his negligence, the court found him guilty of manslaughter and so sent him to prison.

What Happens If A Doctor Accidentally Kills A Patient?

Accidents happen. In people’s personal lives, professional lives, and in medicine. But what happens if a doctor actually kills a patient as a result of an accident?

If a doctor accidentally kills a patient, through no fault of their own, then they are very unlikely to be charged with any offence. However, if the accident was caused as a result of negligence, such as being drunk at work, then the doctor may be charged with manslaughter.

At the end of the day, doctors are only human. I know I’ve personally made plenty of mistakes in my professional life as a doctor.

Very soon after starting work as a doctor, I remember mistaking two patients on the ward with the same name for each other, and so ended up taking blood from the wrong patient.

Luckily, I realised what I’d done before sending the samples to the lab and so was able to apologise to the patient and retake the bloods from the correct person.

Unfortunately however, there are instances when more serious harm can come to patients as a result of medical mistakes. For example, this doctor carried out a botched procedure that led to the death of a woman after he pierced the sac containing her heart with a needle.

A fitness to practice hearing for a doctor

He was trying to take a bone marrow biopsy from the patient’s breastbone, but pushed the needle too deeply and so pierced the pericardium. This led to massive internal bleeding and ultimately her death.

The doctor in question was actually jailed for 3 years. This is because he’d been carrying out an unusual and highly dangerous procedure with the wrong equipment while lying about his age to his employer.

However, it’s the circumstances here that lead to this doctor being jailed, not the mere fact that a patient had died. If a fully qualified surgeon were to accidentally nick a major blood vessel during surgery, leading to the patient dying on the operating table, they wouldn’t be found guilty of any offence.

Unfortunately, during major operations, there is always a small but serious risk of death that the patient will have been counselled about before consenting to the procedure. If the surgeon slipped, not through any fault of their own, this would sadly be one of the rare cases where the surgery does not go to plan and the patient pays the ultimate price.

Final Thoughts

Doctors can go and do go to prison, and you’ll likely see it on the news every now and again.

However, the doctors that are found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, or indeed murder, and sent to prison are in the tiny minority. The vast majority of doctors uphold the incredibly high professional standards expected of them and deliver high-quality care to their patients every single day.

Increasing litigation rates may make doctors more and more cautious to ever admit making a mistake. Which will have a negative impact on us being able to reflect on past failings and so improve in the future.

But equally, doctors, just like anyone else, must be held to account for wrongdoing. Which is only more vital in medicine considering the huge amount of power doctors hold in their position.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.