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In a very unhealthy state

According to a Supreme Court judgment of 2004, a doctor is not criminally liable if a patient dies because of ?error of judgment? or ?carelessness?.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 00:24 IST

According to a Supreme Court judgment of 2004, a doctor is not criminally liable if a patient dies because of ‘error of judgment’ or ‘carelessness’. But what about the reverse, as in the case in Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi last week, when doctors declared a baby stillborn, only for the family to find out, at the burial ground, that it was very much alive? Would that be considered harmless ‘error of judgment’ or would it be ‘gross negligence’ or ‘gross lack of competence’ on the part of the doctor — which is what this verdict of the apex court required patients to prove beyond doubt in order to hold a doctor accountable?

While this judgment — a problematic one since it did not clearly put forth guidelines on what would constitute ‘gross negligence’ in a court of law — was later referred to a larger bench for revision, what it did highlight was that patients generally tend to be at a disadvantage in cases where they suspect negligence. Hospitals rarely make medical records available to patients or their families. And in the absence of a policy that makes this mandatory, patients are deprived of their only source of proof. In the present case, the parents of the new-born baby are still helplessly waiting for hospital authorities to inform them how this gross travesty took place. The relationship between a doctor and a patient is one of trust and faith. But without much more transparency in the proceedings of the healthcare industry, this trust will fast get eroded.

This is especially so of government-run hospitals, which have for too long been allowed to function without maintaining even the most basic standards. As a rule, these hospitals are under-staffed, there is a huge shortage of beds, hygiene is abysmal, equipment inadequate and quality of medical attention below par. Sadly, many people have no choice but to flock to them since private hospitals are usually beyond their reach. The latest incident at Safdarjung Hospital cannot be glossed over, and should be made to serve as a wake-up call for the government and public health authorities.