In specific circumstances, like legal matters, there is usually a reference to “medical experts”, and their opinions are usually held in high regard.  These experts range from various medical specialists including orthopaedic surgeons, general surgeons, cardiologists, cardio-thoracic surgeons, physicians, forensic pathologists to medico-legal consultants. Other experts like occupational therapists and industrial psychologists, are sometime also referred to as “experts”, especially in Road Accident Fund matters.

What qualifies one as a “medical expert”?

Clarifying the definition of medical:

By definition, especially in terms of South African Law, only a medical doctor/ specialist with a recognised medical degree can be referred to as a “medical practitioner”, in terms of the Health Professions Act of 1974, as amended. Any others professionals who work in the health related professions like occupational therapists are known as “Healthcare practitioners”. Of course the other practitioners besides the doctors do form an integral part of the medical system.

In terms of making a diagnosis about a patient’s illness or state of being, according to the Health Professions Act, only medical doctors are allowed to make diagnoses. The Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa, recently in the 2012 judgement, of Road Accident Fund vs Duma, also clarified and endorsed this. many other healthcare practitioners like occupational therapists and industrial psychologists have on occasion taken the liberty claim to have made their own diagnoses of patients illnesses and conditions.

Clarifying the definition of expert:

This matter is indeed a very complex one, whether one looks at a medical expert or a healthcare expert.  A quick google search for the basic definition shows the foll0wing:

Expert: “a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”

With reference to the above it is apparent that any person that is referred to or refers to him/her -self has to possess knowledge and /or skills in a specific area, and in this case in the medical or healthcare environment.

This leads to another question that I think needs to answered: Is every medical practitioner or healthcare practitioner automatically an expert by virtue of their training?

I strongly believe that at first view the answer is No! This is because I believe that expertise established by specific experience and knowledge gained over a period of time. It stands to reason that such claim of “expertise” is a large claim to make, unless it is by other people  and not the practitioner him/her -self. Any person who has been referred to as an expert or having expert may be presumed to have already demonstrated their special skills and experience, for others to make such references or claims.

However, for an individual to claim that “they themselves” believe they are an expert, then it they will need to prove that they do possess such special skills and experience.  I strongly believe that anyone who revers to themselves as an expert may have an over-confidence and an inflated ego.

I have worked with a range of colleagues esp. younger one, who and recently completed introductory training in expertise assessments and reporting, and now market themselves as “experts”. This is probably is a slippery slope.

Expertise training courses

There are a range of courses offered in South Africa and internationally that claims to assist one gaining credentials and training in becoming an expert.

One of the most recognised courses is the American Board of Independent Medical Examiners courses which many doctors and non-doctors attend annually. Within the training courses there are two levels, the attendance only course, and the international board exams.

More than 90% of practitioners both medical and otherwise, merely attend the course. There is no doubt immense value for those that do attend the course and concentrate in the very rushed, and complex coursework within 12-15 hours. The is of course the other end of the spectrum, which I had personally witnessed, where people signed the attendance register in the morning and then in the evening, and receive their certificate by not really being there for the actual training.

The Board exam (which I have completed and am now a Board Certified Independent Medical Examiner or CIME), is of course a very different verification of specialised training and experience. This examination which is regulated by a range of international experts and professionals, have had a very few people actually meet the stringent standards and pass the examinations. In fact, some less than 255 doctors, including specialists have passed the CIME requirements in Southern Africa. This certification itself again, does not confer expertise, but is just one measure of skills and experience.

Finally, the decision whether to support the claims of people whether by others, or people themselves, to be experts, remains a an individual one, and is always your choice. Look for past work and opinions expressed by the experts, and then decide for yourself, if someone is or is not an expert.