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Patients aggrieved over Supreme Court judgment

By J. Venkatesan

New Delhi, Aug. 7. While the medical profession has welcomed the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday that a doctor will not be criminally liable if a patient dies due to an error of judgment or carelessness or want of due caution, patients feel aggrieved over the judgment.

The court had quashed the criminal proceedings against a plastic surgeon who faced a charge under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code (causing death by negligence) for causing the death of a person during surgery for removing his nasal deformity in April 1994.

'We welcome it'

Speaking to The Hindu on behalf of the medical profession, Dr. T.N. Rao, a World Health Organisation fellowship awardee, said: "We welcome the judgment. We are trained in such a way that we take due care and caution to save a patient by all means. But despite our efforts we may not succeed in all cases. That does not mean we have not given our best to the patient."

"Nowadays we find that doctors are being threatened with filing of cases even if there is no fault on them and we have to face unnecessary inquiry and harassment from police," he said. This judgment would put an end to such unpleasant incidents. "We can perform our duties much better than before since the threat of Damocles Sword no longer hangs on our head".

"I don't say that all doctors are above board. Just like any other profession, there may be one or two black sheep in the medical profession also. But people will neglect them and they cannot continue in the profession for long," he said. He did not agree with the perception that this judgment will embolden doctors to throw caution to the winds while treating patients.

The former Attorney General and senior advocate, Ashok Desai, who defended the plastic surgeon in the Supreme Court, said that for fixing criminal liability on a doctor or a surgeon, the standard of negligence required to be proved should be so high, for example, a doctor amputating left leg instead of right leg and similar other acts of gross negligence. Otherwise for anything and everything a patient would rush to a police station. He said that even in the United States and the United Kingdom, doctors were very rarely hauled up with criminal charges, though there might be instances of payment of compensation for negligence. He cited the judgment of House of Lords in "R. Vs Adomako" in which it was held that a doctor could not be held criminally responsible for patient's death unless his negligence or incompetence showed such disregard for life and safety of his patient as to amount to a crime against the State.

M.N. Krishnamani, senior advocate, said the Medical Council of India was to have non-medical members in its Council as well as in all the State Medical Councils to ensure that doctors were made more accountable than in the present set-up. Such an appellate authority would act as an Ombudsman for dealing with complaints of medical negligence.

The MCI, he said would also incorporate a provision in the MCI Act that any complaint against a delinquent doctor should be deposed of by the State Medical Council within six months not only to deal effectively with medical negligence but also to safeguard the interests of poor patients across the country.

'May not help the poor'

Human rights activists, however, feel let down by the judgment. Considering the level of illiteracy in the country and poor economic condition of patients, this judgment would embolden doctors to give scant regard and concern for the patients, particularly in government hospitals. The rich could sue doctors for compensation for proven negligence or carelessness and fight it out in courts but the poor could not afford this luxury. The judgment failed to address this aspect, they said.

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