The shocking case of a young woman pledging herself to hospital authorities to seek the release of her sister’s body from a private hospital in Bilaspur in Chattisgarh has once again raised a highly debated issue: How sensitive are Indian hospitals?
The incident, which took on 27 March, 2016 has — expectedly — triggered outrage in Chattisgarh CM Raman Singh forced to seek details of the case and whether there were any issues of medical negligence as alleged by the family of the dead.
A veritable tug of war ensued for her body after Shanti Dhandhi, 19, was pronounced dead by Dr Devendra Singh, gadgets from her body removed around midnight by a few nurses. The rest were - claim eyewitnesses at the hospital — busy watching replays of India’s win over Australia in faraway Mohali.
For Shakuntala, her sister’s death was doubly shocking. Her elder sister — in a family of eight sisters — had died in the same hospital in 2010 and Dandhi, the youngest, was dead in 15 days flat.
Hospital authorities demanded upfront payment of Rs 2, 00,000 ignoring pleas from members of her distraught family. A distressed Shakuntala, seeing no option, pledged herself till the time payment was sorted out. Her offer shocked everyone, papers started moving from the files in the hospital’s administrative department to the morgue for clearance of the body.
“There was no other way I could have released the body, I offered myself. I stayed with the hospital authorities and left only after cash was organised,” Shakuntala said in a telephonic interview.
Hospital authorities denied any fracas over the body, saying there was no pressure on the family. “They got delayed because of certain formalities,” Devesh Gopal, head of administration of the hospital, said.
Gopal said the hospital authorities extended all help possible. “There were merely procedural delays, its routine in all hospitals,” he said.
Dhandhi was no legend in making, youngest of eight sisters, she was an aspiring athlete who had won the top archery honours in an inter-state tournament in Punjab this February.
A resident of Korba, an industrial town three hours away from Bilaspur, Dhandhi was admitted to the hospital on March 12, she had appeared for Hindi examinations in her college.“We knew she had jaundice but we did not expect her to collapse, every day medicines were changed. We could not argue because we are not doctors,” rued Shakuntala.
Eventually, a social media intervention saved the day.
Cash was organised through a number of whats up groups which sent out messages, the body eventually released around early morning hours. Even some senior cops chipped in because the messages had gone viral, garnering reactions from all across Korba and Bilaspur. “We were able to pay the hospital and informed the CM about our fear of medical negligence,” says Ravindra Singh Khatri of Jivandeep, a NGO in Korba. Khatri said Bilaspur, for the records, is not free from cases of medical negligence. In November, 2014, 12 women died after botched surgeries at a mass sterilisation camp.
Interestingly, a Facebook lament by one Pallavi Panda who lost her husband last year due to alleged negligence by doctors garnered over 3,00,000 shares.
India’s medical laws are tough, actually tougher because family members of the deceased must have enough evidence to prove that the physician didn’t have “the professional skill of a physician” or that he “did not follow standard practice acceptable to the medical profession”.
There have been countless occasions where the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has rejected several hundred claims on such grounds. There have been cases where doctors escaped punishment because they hadn’t charged any fees. Under rules in India, free medical treatment does not bind a doctor in case of negligence.
But there are others who have argued against it, prominent among them being the Delhi-based Indian Medical Association (IMA) which says whether the patient has paid or not has nothing to do with the doctor being negligent but argues for “solid, independent investigation”.
The IMA has even favoured a policy of compensation without negligence as followed in the West, where compensations are paid for damage caused even if there is no case of negligence.
But it is tough belling the cat.
Worse, there are no collated data on cases of medical negligence, most cases of medical negligence lumped with police complaints under Section 304A of IPC, which deals with death by negligence. In 2015, there were a little over 200,000 such deaths in India, where over 9,000 contracted HIV through contaminated blood transfusion between 2010-15.
Like millions in India, Shakuntala says there is no one to argue on behalf of her family, her hopes lies with the office of the Chattisgarh CM. In a country where medical negligence has long blighted the poor, the chances of any redressal are almost negligible.
“I have been told I will get my sister’s medical file after a month, I cannot event argue her case because I still do not know what happened to her,” she says.
She has only one question: “What was the cost of my sister’s body, why hold it back?”