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The Supreme Court has sent out a very strong message to the medical fraternity in India, says Saha.
The Supreme Court has sent out a very strong message to the medical fraternity in India, says Saha.

We have a very long way to make the system accountable: Kunal Saha

Kunal Saha speaks about the 15-year legal battle he waged and the landmark judgement by the Supreme Court

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on 24 October awarded 5.96 crore as compensation, to be paid by Kolkata-based AMRI Hospital and three doctors, to Kunal Saha, a US-based physician of Indian origin, for medical negligence that led to the 1998 death of his wife Anuradha, who suffered from a deadly skin disease that was not properly diagnosed. In a phone interview from Ohio in the US, Saha said the judgement was a watershed moment although it had, at this point, little relevance for the marginalized patients in the country, and spoke about the 15-year legal battle he waged. Edited excerpts:

Do you think this verdict is a landmark with respect to medical negligence cases in India?

Of course. The verdict has already created ripples in the medical community. Besides being a big personal victory for us, this verdict will act as a precedent in other cases. What I claimed as compensation was far higher compared to what the court directed.

People in India have been focusing on the amount of money granted.

I had to spend close to $1.5 million (around 9 crore today) on the litigation. So the quantum of compensation does not excite me very much. Personally, the compensation is not adequate for me, but the message is the most important aspect.

The Supreme Court has sent out a very strong message to the medical fraternity in India. In the Indian context, this verdict will go a long way in telling the medical community that they can be questioned and held accountable as well.

Isn’t it optimistic to assume the verdict will have meaning even for marginalized patients?

Yes, I do agree that this verdict might not be exactly applicable to the entitlement-illiterate, marginalized patients going to government hospitals in India. This case is an exception because it was a doctor questioning another doctor. Mostly, in medical negligence cases across public and private hospitals in India, families do not even realize that they lost a loved one due to the doctor’s carelessness. Poor families or even educated, well-to-do patients do not stand a chance in India when it comes to established medical negligence on the part of a doctor or institute. Even in expensive private hospitals, the patient or family has everything stacked against him if they start on a journey to prove the doctor guilty. We have a very long way to make the system accountable, but I think we have started.

Even in cases when medical negligence is established, the compensation is a pittance—between 50,000 and 2 lakh usually. My case took 15 years and we fought at every level. We fought so many battles to establish the case. This is not a problem with the medical community, it is the judicial system that fails to address this issue.

Do you think we glorify the medical profession to the extent that the relationship between a doctor and patient becomes unequal?

I am a doctor from India. And I know that most doctors, even well-informed, well-meaning professionals, take offence when asked for a second opinion. Doctors in India do not try to reason with the patient or explain the line of treatment to the patient and family. It is usually a monologue which ends with “I know better because I am the expert and don’t question what you don’t understand" type of attitude.

In the past few decades, the medical profession in India has changed for the worse for the patients. Doctors have become untouchable and unquestionable, and the code of conduct in the Indian medical fraternity makes it impossible to have one doctor speak against another. I paid every price in doggedly pursuing this legal battle. I had to file for bankruptcy and my home loan was foreclosed, and that is despite making a decent income even by American standards. The medical negligence cases are too expensive, too much in favour of doctors, and patients never stand a chance.

In the long term, do you see this verdict changing the attitude doctors have towards patients in India?

There are a lot of good signs in the judgement. Despite the fact that it took us so long and cost us so much, the verdict is a watershed moment in the Indian context. What worries me the most about medical community in India is that no doctor comes forward to testify against another. We faced this problem, but I hope things will change.

People have started talking about medical negligence. The medical community has sat up and taken notice. I am told that the doctors’ association is going to protest against this judgement. It is high time doctors in India realize they cannot play god. Their decisions should be open to scrutiny and they should learn to make peace with that. I hope this verdict will pave the way for that.

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