The Supreme Court’s award of a record compensation of Rs.5.9 crore in a case of medical negligence is in continuation of its well-considered stance of balancing the rights of patients with the legitimate protection of doctors when they are on call. The significance of such an approach cannot be overstated in the specific context of India, where the health care system — in the public and the private sector — functions under sub-optimal conditions; while the entire medical profession operates within the purview of the Consumer Protection Act. Through successive judgments, the court has sought to address the question of criminal culpability of medical practitioners. It has insisted that the police cannot be allowed to proceed against doctors for negligence, unless authorised by expert medical opinion. An important parallel to this line of reasoning is also the legal protection guaranteed to doctors to facilitate instantaneous and cashless treatment of victims of road accidents. In the instant case involving a private hospital in Kolkata, the apex court maintained in its 2009 verdict that for negligence to amount to an offence, criminal intent on the part of medical practitioners would have to be established. It thus upheld the Calcutta High Court’s acquittal of two of the doctors, even as it affixed civil liability.
In fact, weighing all the relevant facts of the case, the highest court has more or less tripled the amount of compensation originally determined by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. To that extent, it may be said to have struck a reasonable balance between the irreversibility of the loss of a precious human life and holding the medical fraternity to account for dereliction of duty. Governments must draw important lessons from the culmination of the 15-year long judicial battle. There is, above all, a need for mandatory accreditation of all medical facilities in the public and private sectors and an independent evaluation of their performance. This is a key recommendation in the report of the High Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage of the Planning Commission. A health regulatory authority to develop legal, financial and regulatory norms is the other proposal in the report. The implications of these should be self-evident in the current scenario of for-profit model of providing health care. India’s doctor-to-population ratio is well below the World Health Organisation stipulation of one per one thousand and calls for urgent corrective intervention. The mission of a medical professional is to heal the sick and, arguably, to create a disease-free environment for healthy living. While fixing accountability is important, a concerted all-round effort is needed to realise that objective.