January 12, 2008

Doctors' strikes: Supreme Court seeks reply from medical councils

In a major development in the ongoing public interest litigation seeking a total ban on doctors' strikes in India, the Supreme Court has directed a patients' body led by an India-born American to implead all medical councils in the country.

It has also directed the Kolkata-based petitioner People for Better Treatment (PBT), run by Ohio-based AIDS vaccine researcher Kunal Saha, to issue notices on why councils are not taking disciplinary action against doctors joining "strikes and shutting down hospitals", thus causing misery to innocent patients.

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A division bench of Justices Arijit Pasayat and P Sathasivam issued the directive on Thursday.

Saha, who had lost his wife to alleged medical negligence during a visit to Kolkata in 1998, later formed PBT and launched a legal battle against the "flawed" healthcare system in India.

The court has directed PBT (the petitioner) to "implead" (sue or make them liable) all the state medical councils of the country and issue notices in seven days seeking answers to why the respective state medical councils are not taking disciplinary action under the Medical Council of India (MCI) Rules against the doctors who are joining strikes and shutting down hospitals.

The public interest suit was filed against the MCI and the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) after several patients allegedly died as a result of "doctors' strike" at the AIIMS hospital in 2006 (to protest against the "quota" system).

"This is a remarkable development in our ongoing battle towards bringing justice for the defenceless patients in India," Saha told IANS from Ohio.

"Doctors joining a strike, disrupting life-saving treatment in hospitals, to satisfy their own demands is unheard of in the rest of the civilised world. But in spite of categorical rules in the MCI Code of Ethics and Regulations that all Indian doctors must follow, strikes by medicos is a frequent affair in our country today," Saha said.

The MCI code mandates that doctors must treat all patients who are in need of emergency medical care.

The counsel for the MCI admitted that doctors in India must follow the existing MCI rules, but submitted that it is the duty of the respective state medical councils to enforce the rules for practising doctors in the state.

Based on this submission by the MCI, the apex court issued the directions.

"Many patients, including several children, died last month in Hyderabad when doctors joined a massive strike to protest alleged attack on some of their medical colleagues by the victims of medical negligence. Now the information must spread so that they cannot be negligent in their duties," Saha said.

Saha has filed the biggest-ever medical compensation case ($17 million) against a hospital and three doctors based in Kolkata after the death of his wife Anuradha Saha, 36, due to alleged wrong treatment.

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