India mulls strict law as attacks on docs by patients’ kin rise

Incidents of murderous assaults on doctors by angry relatives of patients are on the increase in India but hooliganism in hospitals will soon be a thing of the past.

The federal government is all fired up to enact a stringent, no-nonsense law under which those who attack medicos, nurses and hospital staff will be jailed for 10 long years and/or slapped with a staggering fine of Rs 1 million.

Last fortnight, even as vandalism went on in the county’s 35,000-odd overcrowded government hospitals as also private medical institutions, the Health Minister told chief ministers of all states to protect physicians after studying the draft legislation readied by an expert committee on the basis of a memorandum submitted by the Indian Medical Association (IMA) representing 300,000 doctors.       

The IMA, which has been lobbying for a national criminal law dealing specifically with escalating attacks on doctors and other healthcare professionals, has launched education programmes to encourage young medics to spend more time with their patients and their relatives to soothe tempers but has revealed that 75 per cent of healers are bound to face scuffles with patients during their career.   

Attacks on hospital staff has become the order of the day. Photo courtesy: Kunal Trivedi


But the government woke up from its deep slumber only after a successful nationwide strike by junior and senior doctors who were boiling mad following a violent incident in which an on-duty medico was beaten black and blue by the kinsmen of a patient in a Kolkata hospital.

Not long ago, even after the government threatened to make rowdy rumble in health establishments a cognisable, non-bailable offence and put the assailants behind bars, three doctors were bashed up by relatives of a patient who died in a Mumbai hospital, while three women thrashed a 32-year-old doctor who was making frantic efforts to save an elderly patient through cardio-pulmonary resuscitation in an Uttar Pradesh town. 

 The country has been witnessing violence against the medical fraternity for a decade now but the frequency of inhuman assaults has assumed frightening proportions only in the past few months despite the fact that most of the doctors go an extra mile to fulfil their medical course pledge for helping and curing their patients.

In the worst incident of its kind in Dhule city of Maharashtra last year, as many as 20 relatives of an accident victim went ballistic after the latter died in a government hospital and mercilessly clobbered a 35-year-old orthopaedist with rods, chairs and scissors.  

In Ahmedabad, largest city of Gujarat, home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a resident doctor and a security guard of a prestigious hospital attached to Asia’s largest state-run Civil Hospital, had a narrow escape when three men who had brought in a fourth-stage breast cancer patient attacked them with a knife after a verbal duel over delay in treatment.        

“Sick with dread, several doctors have put in their papers, are planning to quit the profession itself or are advising their children against joining the medical field,” famed neurologist Padma Shri Dr Sudhir Shah told Connected To India.   

But the brave-hearts among them are learning martial arts to protect themselves and even their female colleagues have been forced to learn the ropes of self-defence skills from black-belt champions as vandalism in hospitals has become the order of the day in spite of tighter security, stricter laws and strike threats by the clinicians.      

There is only one nurse per a population of 700. Photo courtesy: Kunal Trivedi

No wonder, white-coats in several Indian cities have earlier this year struck work for days on end and later even wore helmets on duty as their symbolic protest but the courts of law rapped them on the knuckles, saying they could not strike work like factory workers.  

The root causes of the frequent brawls are a terrible shortage of doctors as well as lack of funds and facilities in public hospitals. There are 1.01 million allopathic doctors but on any given day, only 80% of them are available for active service.

According to diabetologist Dr Mayur Patel, the doctor-population ratio in India is mere 1:1,560 and the nurse-population ratio is a little better at 1:700 but this is just not adequate for the 1.32-billion population.

“The result is that junior medics work round the clock without proper food and sleep and then hardly have the energy to look after each patient resulting in a communication gap and hence have to bear the brunt of public fury”, reasons Dr Satish Patel, one of the country’s top-drawer orthopaedic surgeons.   

On their part, hospital authorities have swung into action to ease the doctor-patient friction by beefing up security with burly bouncers, restricting entry to relatives, installing alarms and CCTV cameras as also by requesting senior doctors to deal with sensitive cases.

Truth to tell, only 19 states and seven Union territories boast of a doctor protection Act and even there, FIRs are filed and forgotten and the hot-headed, rumbustious relatives go scot-free with not a single conviction so far.

The total health expenditure of India is a pathetic 4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product compared to the World Health Organization’s standard of 6 percent. The country does not have even one doctor for a population of 1,000, what with a Price Waterhouse Coopers report revealing a shortage of three million doctors and about six million nurses, and the situation has indubitably turned worse.

Although rural India accounts for about 70 percent of the population, it has less than one-third of nation’s hospitals, doctors and nurses as well as beds, resulting in large disparities in health outcomes across states.

The country with the highest number of medical colleges in the world has about 55,000 medical college seats but experts in the loop say it will take 50 years to clear the backlog if India continues to produce doctors at the current rate of 80,000 a year.

Doctors have been advised to spend more time with patients and their relatives to soothe tempers. Photo courtesy: Dr Sushil Patel

In sum, as Dr Sudhir Shah says, the government’s move for a harsh law to give the stick to vandals in hospitals is a “most-awaited step which will enable doctors to perform their noble duties without fear and apprehension and ultimately lead to better patient management.”