September 24, 2007

Hospitals test patients for HIV without consent

Next time you go to the hospital for a routine test, you may get tested for HIV as well. Private hospitals have begun testing all patients for HIV/AIDS, without seeking their consent or offering them counselling.

Medical experts call it a ‘violation of one’s fundamental rights’. Private hospitals have made the tests mandatory, as they say it protects their healthcare providers from contracting such diseases.

But in the process, they have overlooked the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s guideline: ‘HIV screening is recommended for patients in all healthcare settings, provided the patient is notified that testing will be performed.”

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) has questioned the necessity of such tests and has also recommended that if these tests are performed, they should conform to rules laid down by some expert body.

Dr Alaka Deshpande, AIDS specialist at JJ hospital, says three tests should be performed before calling somebody HIV+. She says that there have been cases where the first test has shown up positive, but the other two tests have proved otherwise.

“However, some hospitals perform only one test and if the result is positive, tag the person HIV+ without confirming with subsequent tests,” says Deshpande. She adds that lack of stringent laws is making things worse.

A bill drafted by the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Network about ‘informed consent’ is presently being scrutinised by the Union Law Ministry and is expected to be presented in the winter session of the parliament this year. “The bill clearly states that informed consent in the form of writing has to be sought,” says Anand Grover, director of Lawyers’ Collective.

But some private hospitals support their stand on testing patients. “Where is the problem in testing each and every patient?” asks Dr Ashish Tiwari, media officer of Bombay Hospital. “Tests protect the staff who are at risk of getting the infection,” he adds.

“If we start counselling patients, many patients might opt out of treatment.” Ironically, the state government has done little to help. Dr Prakash Doke, director of health services, admits that tests are done without consent, but says that only a strict law can help and recommends precautions.

Some doctors even insist that people should go ahead and sue the hospital. “It is a known fact that pre-test counselling does not happen. Therefore, one has every right to fight against it,” says Dr Madhuri Kulkarni, dean, Sion hospital.

“What if there were no laws? Medical ethics itself should stop hospitals from conducting the tests surreptitiously,” she adds.

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