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Patients as consumers of health care in South Africa: the ethical and legal implications

Kirsten Rowe* and Keymanthri Moodley

Author Affiliations

Centre for Medical Ethics and Law, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg Campus, Cape Town, South Africa

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:15  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-15

Published: 21 March 2013



South Africa currently has a pluralistic health care system with separate public and private sectors. It is, however, moving towards a socialised model with the introduction of National Health Insurance. The South African legislative environment has changed recently with the promulgation of the Consumer Protection Act and proposed amendments to the National Health Act. Patients can now be viewed as consumers from a legal perspective. This has various implications for health care systems, health care providers and the doctor-patient relationship.


Calling a recipient of health care a ‘consumer’ as opposed to a ‘patient’ has distinct connotations and may result in differential behaviour. Labels reflect the ideals of the context in which they are used. Various models of the doctor-patient relationship exist and different metaphors have been used to describe it. Increasingly there are third parties involved within the doctor-patient relationship making it more difficult for the doctor to play the fiduciary role. In certain parts of the world, there has been a shift from a traditional paternalistic model to a consumerist model. The ethical implications of the commodification of health care are complex. As health care becomes a ‘product’ supplied by the health care ‘provider’, there is the risk that doctors will replace professional ethics with those of the marketplace. Health care is a universal human need and cannot be considered a mere commodity. In modern medical ethics, great emphasis is placed on the principle of respect for patient autonomy. Patients are now the ultimate decision-makers. The new Consumer Protection Act in South Africa applies to consumers and patients alike. It enforces strict liability for harm caused by goods and services. Everyone in the supply chain, including the doctor, can be held jointly and severally liable. This may lead to enormous challenges in health care delivery.


Viewing patients as consumers may be detrimental to the doctor-patient relationship. While it facilitates an emphasis on respect for patient autonomy, it inadvertently results in the commodification of health care. The new legislative environment in South Africa promotes the protection of patient rights. It may, however, contribute to increased medical litigation.

Patients; Consumers; Health care; Consumerism; Commodification; Autonomy; Rights; Ethical; Legal; South African