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In 2018, a judgement of High Court of Bombay caused panic amongst doctors who offered teleconsultation. In that case, two gynaecologists were denied anticipatory bail on the grounds that, prima facie, they were criminally negligent towards their patient who unfortunately died while under their care. The material facts of the case are that the deceased patient had presented herself with a complaint of fever and severe vomiting. She was admitted to the nursing home of the accused doctors by the hospital staff without examination, as the doctors were out of town. One of the doctors started treatment for the patient telephonically, by instructing the on duty nurse. Unfortunately, the patient died. The Court held that the patient died because, amongst other things, she was prescribed treatment over telephone without appropriate diagnosis, and found such practice to be an act of criminal negligence. The application of the doctors for bail in anticipation of arrest was rejected. However, the doctors were successful in receiving the bail in appeal and were not arrested.
This judgement was interpreted by some doctors as deeming the practice of telemedicine and teleconsultation itself illegal. However, such an interpretation is without basis and incorrect. The Court was only concerned failure of the doctor to diagnose the patient. The fact that the drugs for treatment of patient were communicated by the doctor through telephone is only incidental to the outcome of the judgement. It is not the basis of the judgement. In other words, had the doctor communicated the same drugs to the nurse orally while being physically present but without examining the patient, and then patient would have died, the Court would have come to the same conclusion. Thus, the judgement should not be extrapolated to state that the practice of telemedicine and teleconsultation itself is illegal.
Therefore, the above judgement of Bombay High Court does not interfere with the Telemedicine Guidelines at all. In fact, it supports it. The Telemedicine Guidelines require doctors who provide teleconsultation to start patient treatment only if the doctor is satisfied that he/ she has gathered adequate and relevant information about the patient’s medical condition and prescription of medicines which are in the best interest of the patient. Else, the doctor should not prescribe medication to the patient. If the doctor prescribes patient in violation of the Telemedicine Guidelines, he/she risks losing his/her registration with respective State Medical Council i.e. the license to practice medicine on grounds of professional misconduct.
Enforcement of the Telemedicine Guidelines
The Telemedicine Guidelines have been published in form of an amendment to the Code of Conduct. Therefore, any violation of the Telemedicine Guidelines will be looked at as a ‘misconduct’ at hands of the concerned doctor under the Code of Conduct. A patient, who suffers due to misconduct, has the right to complain to the respective State Medical Council with whom the doctor is registered about the misconduct. If the doctor is found guilty of the misconduct, he or she may be reprimanded, or his/her registration may be suspended or cancelled. A suspension or cancellation of registration would effectively stop the doctor from carrying on his/her medical practice.
The notification of the Telemedicine Guidelines marks the dawn of a new era in the practice of modern medicine. The law has finally caught up with the reality and necessity of modern times.
The Telemedicine Guidelines enable doctors to confidently provide teleconsultation via any medium (such as email, phone call, message, fax, WhatsApp, other mobile and computer applications such as Skype, Google Hangouts etc.) to the patients.
At the same time, they protect patient interest by mandating doctors to identify themselves before consultations, disclose their registration number, offer the same standard of care to patients as during in-person consultation and limit medicines that can be prescribed through a teleconsultation.
Indians will now be able to enjoy access to quality healthcare remotely, and doctors will be able to extend their services to many more needy patients