Doctors beware

A compensation of Rs 5.96 crore, with interest, awarded by the Supreme Court to an NRI doctor for the death of his wife, caused by  negligence in treatment by three doctors at a Kolkota hospital, sets a precedent in the country. It is the highest ever compensation given in a case of medical negligence, the previous highest being  Rs 1 crore in a Hyderabad case in 2009.

The court considered it fit to increase the compensation substantially from the Rs 1.73 crore decided by the national consumer forum after the complainant tirelessly pursued his case.  It should send out a message of caution and warning to doctors and hospitals. It is difficult to put a price tag on human life and the amount of rightful compensation will vary according to circumstances. But the principle that medical practitioners and hospitals are responsible and liable for their actions and for the treatment offered to patients is important.

There is little public awareness in India about the accountability of doctors in the treatment of patients. In most of the instances where a patient dies or suffers injury because of wrong diagnosis, treatment or negligence, no follow-up course of redressal is pursued. Most do not have the resources for that. In many other countries the laws are much more stringent and complaints and cases are pursued much more vigorously.

Medical negligence should of course be differentiated from errors of good faith. But in a field dominated by an inefficient public health care system and profit-seeking private institutions, lack of care, poor treatment and malpractices are common. Unethical and deliberate practices like subjecting patients to unnecessary tests and investigations are also common. Patients should have the right to compensation in such cases also.

There may be the danger of doctors and hospitals being subjected to harassment on the basis of suspicion, flimsy charges or baseless grounds. Because of this there was even opposition to bringing the medical profession within the scope of the consumer protection act. But a proper complaints redressal mechanism can ensure that complainants get justice and doctors are not victimised for no fault of their own.

The Medical Council of India (MCI) has not taken its responsibility in this respect seriously. Very few doctors in the country have been penalised or had their registration cancelled for malpractices or negligence. While the medical profession and practice should be protected from wrong claims, the rights of patients should not go unheeded.

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