The recent death of 23 students after consuming mid-day meal once more exposed the sad state of affairs of Bihar’s healthcare system

Call it a tragedy, an accident, politics or whatever, the truth is that nothing can justify the tragic deaths of 23 children in Bihar’s Saran district who fell ill after eating the mid-day meal at their government school last month. This incomprehensible incident finally made the State as well as the entire country wake up to the critical reports published regularly in the press regarding the poor implementation of the scheme. Not only the mid-day meal scheme but the dismal picture of government-run hospitals and public health care centers (PHCs) has also been exposed.

The parents of victims blame the inadequate facilities at the nearest PHC as a major contributory factor to the deaths. Another report claims that many of the 23 children who died after consuming the poison-laced meal now appear to be victims of wrong diagnosis.

Located approximately 70 km from Patna, the Muzaffarpur district has reported many cases of medical negligence in the past two years. In September 2011, the unit of Dr. H.N. Bhardwaj at Shree Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH) incorrectly operated upon Sushila Devi’s gall bladder instead of her right leg. Her husband, Shiv Narayan Prasad, lodged an FIR against the doctor. This case managed to reach Ashwin Chaube, State Health Minister, who ordered a probe into the case and formed a team of doctors to investigate it. SKMCH’s Superintendent Dr. G.K. Thakur also accepted that it was a human error. In spite of this, no doctor, guilty of the wrong act, was punished. Neither did Sushila receive any compensation.

With patients’ trust in government hospitals fast waning due to increasing “erroneous” cases, they helplessly turn to private practitioners who are robbing them in broad day light. Normal cases of child delivery are pronounced ‘critical’ and major operations are done to extract money. Another way of harassing poor patients is by prescribing more medicine than required.

The administration blames it on the paucity of doctors but the fact that the doctors of government hospitals spend most of their time in private practice can’t be refuted either. More than 50 such nursing homes have mushroomed in Muzaffarpur itself.

Although the private nursing homes charge exorbitant fees, the services they provide are not up to the mark. These have registered similar cases of negligence over a period of time leaving no option for the patients. In May 2012, Shail Devi from rural Pakdi, Sadar thana, was transfused with the wrong blood type at Bhavani Nursing Home in Madipur, Muzaffarpur. When her relatives created a storm, the compounder tried to escape with the bottle of the wrongly transfused blood. He was caught and handed over to the police. In this case, an FIR was lodged against the director of the nursing home — Dr. Major Durga Shankar and his compounder — under Sections 308 and 420 of the IPC. Later, the compounder was sent to jail.

Several excuses can be listed supporting the serious infrastructure inadequacies in government hospitals. Stating that there is a shortage of doctors is the easy way out but there are a handful of responsible doctors who are willing to discuss the root causes. Dr. G.K. Thakur, Superintendent of SKMCH, says: “The number of patients visiting the hospital is increasing consistently, while it has become difficult for a small number of doctors to handle the pressure. There are 109 approved posts in our hospital of which 52 are empty. This acute shortage affects the quality of treatment. I have been writing letters to make the government aware for last three years, but this problem has not been attended to.”

Dr. Nishindra Kinjalk, senior doctor and state clinical secretary of The Association of Physicians of India, rues that only a small chapter on medical negligence is taught during the medical studies. Post-exams, most medical practitioners don’t take this seriously. He raises a pertinent question about keeping government doctors outside the periphery of Consumer Protection Act which likely makes them careless. The logic behind keeping them away from the regulation is that government services are provided almost free of cost; hence, they are outside the periphery of the Act. Providing services free of cost to the rural and marginalised communities is the responsibility of our government — not an excuse for the government doctors to walk away freely from the grave charge of taking lives.

(Charkha Features)