Avoidable tragedy

Free cataract surgery at an eye camp in Nellore district has proved costly to at least 11 people. They have lost their eyesight due to post-operative infections that have been blamed on medical negligence. Another 20 patients are said to have developed infections as well.  Cases have been registered against the hospital that conducted the eye camp. Thousands of free eye camps are conducted by charitable trusts and hospitals across the country every day. Since surgeries here are conducted free of charge they come as a boon especially to the poor. That these free eye camps provide a useful public service is not in doubt. But when negligence creeps in, tragedies like the one at Nellore happen, depriving patients of their eyesight and undermining public confidence in such eye camps. The hospital that conducted the eye camp at Nellore has a proud record of having conducted 40,000 eye surgeries over the past 10 years. What went wrong at the Nellore camp then? A thorough probe is necessary to establish culpability and take the guilty to task.

India has the largest number of people who are visually challenged. It is the first country in the world to start a public health programme for control of blindness and it has achievements to be proud of. The country’s cataract surgical rate (CSR), which is a measure of cataract service delivery ie it reflects the number of cataract operations performed per year, per million population, has grown considerably. Ten years ago, India’s CSR was 1,500. Today it is around 4,500. This means that a growing number of people are able to access medical treatment for cataract, one of the largest causes of blindness in the country. The role of free eye camps in achieving these figures is not small.

Hospitals sometimes compete with each other to perform as many free cataract surgeries as possible. There have been instances of doctors and hospitals touting the number of surgeries they performed in a day. When numbers are given priority, quality sometimes suffers. While a rising CSR is heartening, that alone is not enough. Attention to quality of the service provided is as important.  Cataract surgery is a simple procedure these days, done with the patient awake and conscious. Patients are able to resume normal life quickly. Yet people have gone blind in Nellore after this simple surgery. This is what makes the tragedy at Nellore all the more distressing.

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