Why is there a witch-hunt against doctors in India?

So asks a doctor as he narrates the plight of his tribe, which he feels, is being increasingly targeted in the country

By Amandeep Aggarwal
Published: Tuesday 25 June 2019
Representational Picture. Photo: Getty Images
Representational Picture. Photo: Getty Images Representational Picture. Photo: Getty Images

No one can deny the fact that over the last decade, doctors in India are feeling unsafe and threatened. A threat perception; a feeling of insecurity has been constantly looming over the already-burdened minds of medicos in our country.

Once called ‘living gods on earth’, they are now frequently bearing tags such as ‘Dr. Death’ and ‘Dacoit Doctor’. No physician, however conscientious or careful, can tell what day or hour he or she may not be the object of some undeserved attack, malicious accusation, blackmail or suit for damages.

The episodes of assaults on doctors and threats have become so prevalent that doctors have united against this threat.

Recently, an attack on junior doctors in West Bengal became the seed for a successful nationwide strike by all doctors with a notice of just two days.

Some patient attendants in NRS Medical College Hospital attacked junior doctors after which, medics staged a strike. This strike got support from across the country, including the Indian Medical Association (IMA), which declared an All India Protest.

Brutally assaulting doctors and criticising the medical profession 364 days in a year and then celebrating Doctors Day and calling them ‘Second God’ on a single day and then expecting doctors to continue service to humanity undeterred has become fashionable in today’s India.

Even the Prime Minister of our country, during his speech in London, didn’t hesitate in criticising Indian doctors for costly medical treatment, knowing fully well that it was not the doctors who were regulating the pharmaceutical companies enjoying autonomy in price fixation.

Plight of Indian doctors

The plight of individual doctors in India though is not hidden from anybody. While the government has not been able to improve its public sector hospitals, it is trying to pin all responsibilities on doctors.

Successive governments have been ignoring public health due to a deficiency of doctors in government hospitals. Instead of improving the public health sector, the governments have been trying to put the responsibility of public health on shoulders of private doctors.

For these reasons, an exodus of doctors to other countries is taking place, which is further deepening the crisis. Illegal capitation fees in private medical colleges, a health services inequality between urban and rural India and a disconnect between the public health and medical education systems were among the issues a parliamentary committee investigated in 2016, while probing the Medical Council of India (MCI), the 84-year-old organisation responsible for medical-education standards.

Instead of improving the working of the MCI, the government has come up with the idea of National Medical Commission, which may further increase the cost of medical education and make it out of reach for the common man. India is short of at least five lakh doctors and the gap may widen in the days to come if the government doesn’t give health a priority and serious thinking.

Medical professionals are grappling daily with emergencies in which there is a very thin line between the “live” and “dead” statuses of serious patients. The slightest error of judgment attracts the wrath of relatives and society, adverse propaganda in media and huge compensations from consumer forums/ courts in the name of deficiency of service.

Modern society has an in-built hatred and suspicion against doctors that may even manifest as the ransacking/arson of a pediatrician’s clinic in Punjab’s Mansa on one day and the gunning down of a doctor in Haryana’s Jind the other.

In a way, advancement of technology has also contributed more negativity against the medical profession, as most of the prescriptions and case records are tallied with Google these days.

A doctor building up his house after 20 years of hard work, is termed as a ‘looter’ building his house from public’s money. When a doctor buys a car, there is gossip about how “he is roaming in a car after cheating his patients of money”. When a doctor goes abroad, even for a medical conference, people comment that he must have been sponsored by a pharma company.

Doctors face assault, hospitals are ransacked after the death of a patient and rioters are rarely punished. Today, doctors in India are in a frightened state of mind and usually don’t wish their wards to opt for their career. Entrepreneurship (setting own hospital) among doctors has taken a back seat. Young doctors are left with three options: move to foreign countries for want of security and better prospects, join government service (if available) and finally joining corporate hospitals in search of better deal.

Government hospitals are in a worse state with huge rush of patients, very less specialists and unimaginable number of surgeries and deliveries with respect to the number of gynaecologists, surgeons and anaesthetists.

Episodes such as the Chhattisgarh sterilisation deaths, where poisonous medicines supplied by the government killed the patients, but the doctor R K Gupta was labeled as ‘Doctor Death’ and is still behind bars, leave a permanent scar of fear and insecurity on the minds of doctors.

What the Law says

The Supreme Court of India had laid down specific guidelines in the Jacob Mathews Case dated August 2005 that a preliminary enquiry is a must before entertaining a private complaint against a doctor alleging negligence.

It is a matter of great concern that that police officers keep on registering cases under section 304 A against doctors and have even arrested them. Following such events, there are bound to be headlines painting the doctor as a ‘Doctor Death’.

Even if the doctor is proved innocent in the medical board’s report, the career of the doctor stands finished by the rash act on the part of police as well as such ruthless journalism. The offence under Medicare Services Protection Act (in many states) is cognizable and non-bailable and it has a provision for one year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000, along with a penalty of double the purchase price of the medical equipment and property damaged.

What is the solution?

As there are certain responsibilities of doctors and other healthcare workers, similarly, responsibilities also have to be borne by patients and their relatives, political parties, hospital authorities, the law and order machinery, media and government to see that health care improves and violence against doctors is strongly dealt with.

There is a need for a detailed longitudinal study across India to understand the prevalence, nature and regional differences in violence perpetrated against doctors. An ongoing study by IMA reports that 75 per cent of India’s doctors have faced violence at some point of time in their life.

Most of the time, it is verbal abuse. Emergency and ICU are the most violent venues and visiting hours are the most violent time. There is no reason to wait now to stop this violence against doctors and take preventive measures.

Doctors are a part of society, none denies the degradation of moral values of society; some medicos are also bound to stoop low. But then, that is true for most other professions also. That does not justify the witch-hunt of doctors.

Many positive steps are needed to be taken by society as well as government to boost the sagging morale of doctors in India; otherwise the day is not far when there will be total exodus of doctors from India! God forbid!

Amandeep Aggarwal is chairman, action committee cum legal cell, Indian Medical Association-Punjab

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