Gaps in law leave patients open to med neglect

07 October, 2014

, TNN | Oct 7, 2014, 09.19AM IST

CHENNAI: I will never be my normal self again.At best I can only improve, says Venugopal Chandrasekhar, Arjuna awardee and celebrated table tennis player. At the pinnacle of his career, he was rendered paralysed and blind because of medical negligence. Though he won compensation of Rs 16 lakh after a protracted legal tussle, his victory was bereft of the thunderous applause, which greeted him after he had trounced an opponent. 

Medical negligence largely remains a grey area, plagued by lacunae, say legal experts. 

Though there have been instances of doctors being fined and action taken against hospitals for negligence, justice is often the result of a protracted legal battle. According to data in Computerization and Computer Networking of Consumer Forums in Country (CONFONET), an average case of medical negligence drags for more than a decade. 

When 25-year-old Chandrasekhar was admitted to Apollo Hospitals for knee surgery, in 1985, little did he know he was never going to wield the racquet again. "The doctors gave me the wrong dosage of anaesthesia which left me with severe neurological damage," he says. For victims of medical negligence, succour came a decade after the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 when the medical profession was included in its ambit. 

"As consumer fora don't require payment of court fee, it helps the victims," says Chandrasekhar.But there has not been a significant change in other aspects. "The patients are required to sign a consent form before a surgery. The form has several clauses, albeit in fine print, which absolves the doctor of liability in the case of a botched up operation," says advocate Sanjay Pinto. Doctors are not willing to testify against other doctors. In the absence of credible medical evidence, it is impossible to take action against erring doctors. As such cases are based on extensive documentation; a single missing medical report may spell disaster. Also, long-drawn cases test the financial strength of a victim, says Pinto. 

"Doctors have formed a guild which protects them from any eventuality," says former Madras high court judge K Chandru. Without the support of another medical practitioner, it is difficult to establish negligence, he says. Also, facts of a case are seldom discussed with the patient. An average patient is kept in the dark about surgical procedure and its possible side effects. "Corporatisation of hospitals has not helped the cause. It's time doctors stop treating patients as objects," says Chandru. 

The mystery surrounding hospital deaths are never really cleared or accounted for."There is neither an investigation wing specialising in medico-legal cases nor exclusive courts to try them," says advocate V S Suresh. 

This systemic shortcoming curtails the role of police, say legal experts. 

A senior police officer said, "Police do not register medical negligence cases under any separate head to distinguish them from deaths caused by other factors. As soon as a case is reported, police treat it as another 'unnatural death' covered by Section 174 of CrPC," he said. As there is no evidence against doctors, such cases are closed within a few days.