In India doctors, nurses and anyone working in the ambit of medical care are considered to be gods. They are responsible for taking good care of a patient and ensuring that his/her medical needs are fulfilled. Although it is not always possible for the doctor to save a patient’s life, it is generally expected from the doctor to always have the patient’s best interest in his/her mind. Thus, to fulfil the said promise, it is imperative on part of the doctors and medical staff to carry out a thorough investigation and collect all the information regarding the patients’ health. ‘Informed consent is imperative and should be taken from the patient unless there is an emergency.
Any breach of duty that leads to injury qualifies as negligence. Thus, medical negligence occurs whenever there is a lack of duty or carelessness on part of the medical staff that results in some injury to the patient. Indian hospitals can be held liable for their services in civil courts, criminal courts or consumer forums. Medical negligence includes doctors, nurses and other health care providers as well. Thus, it is not just restricted to doctors.
In the case of Haryana vs. Smt. Santra the Supreme Court of India held that all doctors “have a duty to act in a reasonable manner with a reasonable degree of care and skill.” Medical services are covered under Consumer Protection Act 1986. Cases can be filed with a criminal court, where the practitioner is charged under section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code. Section 304-A deals with death caused by negligence.
When does liability arise?
The liability arises when as a consequence of the behaviour of a medical practitioner a person suffers injury. The liability occurs when the medical practitioner has been careless or hasty in his practice and as a result of this, the patient suffers an injury. The liability does not occur on every injury caused to the patient. It occurs only on those injuries that are the resultant of the lack of duty on part of the doctor.
What is the liability of the hospital in case of negligence?
In a situation of medical negligence, the hospital could be liable directly or indirectly. In cases of direct liability, the injury is caused due to the shortcomings of the hospital, making the hospital unsuitable or dangerous for treatment. In cases of indirect negligence, the injury is caused by the doctor which could not have been foreseen by the hospital, thus, making the hospital vicariously liable for the injury caused to the patient.
Under the Medical Council of India Regulation, 2002 it is mandatory for the employer to maintain proper records. Improper maintenance of records and not handing over such records to the patient or any legal authority under 72 hours is considered a violation.
The hospital, that is, the employer is not just responsible for its own actions but also the actions of its staff that are employed by it. However, in current times, doctors are
not employees of the hospital but work as independent bodies. The relationship of the doctor with the hospital helps decide whether he qualifies as an independent contractor or is an employee of the hospital.
In the case of Joseph Alia pappachan v. Dr George Moonierly, the apex court held that the people who run the hospital are obligated under the same duty as the doctors. Whenever a doctor accepts any patient for treatment, he/she needs to practise reasonable care and skill so as to relieve the patient of his sickness. Although the hospital cannot operate on the patient directly, if their staff engages in any negligent activity while treating a patient, the hospital is considered as liable as the medical staff.
In cases of government hospitals, it has been held that the state is considered directly liable in cases of lack of proper facilities, equipment or staff. In cases of negligent acts by the doctors, government hospitals may be held vicariously liable.
The medical profession is considered the noblest profession and doctors are hailed as ‘Gods’ in India. But they are just human, and humans are prone to errors. And since they are prone to errors, proper laws should be in place so as to keep a check on such cases of negligence and punish those who engage in it.