This post on Dilip's blog led me to re-read an email I'd received a few days ago. It referred to a legal precedent (albeit in a different context), establishing that hospitals cannot turn away accident victims.
In the case of Pravat Kumar Mukherjee (the victims' dad) Vs. Ruby General Hospital and Others, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission ruled that no hospital can stop or deny treatment to an accident victim, on the grounds that money has not been deposited.
I'm briefly paraphrasing the sequence of events, based on court documents -
Sumanta Mukherjee, aged 20, a student of 2nd year Electrical Engineering, met with an accident on 14th January, 2001, at 8.10 a.m., on his way to his tuition classes, on a motorcycle. He was knocked down by a bus of the Calcutta Tram Company.
Before hitting Sumanta, the bus had already hit one cyclist ,Vishwajeet Sardar but since the cyclist was obviously of humble origins, he was taken straight to the government-owned National Calcutta Medical College & Hospital.
Since he was on a motorcycle and, clearly, not of such humble origins, the crowd decided to take him to the nearest hospital possible, in this case, Ruby.
Sumanta was still conscious and since he was insured under a Mediclaim policy, he showed the certificate to some of the people in the crowd (who was also one of the witnesses in the case). He promised to pay whatever charges would accrue and based on that, the hospital staff began treating him.
However, some of the administrative staff began insisting that a deposit of Rs 15,000 be paid upfront, and threatened to discontinue treatment.
The crowd who'd brought the boy to the hospital pleaded with the staff to continue treatment, and they'd pay up as soon as they got in touch with the family. They offered to pitch in Rs 2000 on the spot and also offered the boy's motorcycle as security. They showed them the mediclaim certificate.
All to no avail. The hospital insisted on an immediate deposit, and 'in utter violation of medical ethics. They discontinued the treatment after continuing it for around 45 minutes.'
The crowd then took the boy to the National Calcutta Medical College, which was some 8 Kms away. By the time they got there, the boy was already dead.
Now, the boy's family did file a complaint in the consumer court, 'claiming compensation of Rs.1,34,60,000/- for the damages caused to the complainants'. But the court decided that the hospital needed a bigger slap in the face.
It ruled that :
"It is not merely the alleged harm or mental pain, agony or physical discomfort, loss of salary and emoluments etc. suffered by the appellant which is in issue (sic) - it is also the quality of conduct committed by the respondents upon which attention is required tobe founded in a case of proven negligence.
Keeping the aforesaid principles in mind, it would be just and reasonable to award compensation of Rs.10 lakhs for mental pain and agony. This may serve the purpose of bringing about a qualitative change in the attitude of the hospitals of providing service to the human beings as human beings. Human touch is necessary; that is their code of conduct; that is their duty and that is what is required to be implemented. In emergency or critical cases let them discharge their duty/social obligation of rendering service without waiting for fees or for consent."
The same court has also ruled, on more than one occassion, that hospitals are responsible to 'consumers', even if the 'service' rendered is free of cost.
Can the above ruling not be used to insist that victims of disasters - like the landslides in Bombay - be taken in and treated, without waiting for a piece of paper, which certifies that they need treatment?
In fact, I'd be surprised if someone hasn't already filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, in this context... how could we not have?