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Indian court awards record payout in negligence case

Ruling could make medical profession more accountable

Swati Deb, New Delhi
India

October 25, 2013

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India’s Supreme Court awarded an American doctor a record payout of almost a million dollars on Thursday, ending a long running medical negligence case which he says could make hospitals and doctors in the country more accountable.

Kunal Saha, an Ohio-based HIV/AIDS expert, travelled to India in 1998 with his wife who died after contracting Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a rare skin disease. She died after being misdiagnosed and reportedly receiving an overdose of steroids at AMRI, a top private hospital in Kolkata.

Saha sought compensation and was awarded a much smaller payout by a consumer dispute commission in 2011. Unsatisfied, Saha appealed to the Supreme Court, resulting in Thursday’s record payout.  

Speaking from the US, Saha said he hoped the US$970,000 he received would encourage lower courts to award much larger payouts and other victims to file cases.

"This will have a major impact on medical negligence and the standard of medical care in India. This will send a strong message to all negligent doctors and unscrupulous hospitals ... across India," he said.

Saha heads an NGO, People for Better Treatment, which campaigns for the rights of patients in India.

He said there are too many shocking cases of negligence taking place in Indian hospitals, with doctors left unpunished.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling was also welcomed by politicians and health activists who said standards in health care are lacking.

"Poor people would be encouraged to see that medical negligence and wrong diagnosis are serious offences. I say this because the cases of negligence … by doctors and hospital and nursing homes are common in India," said parliamentarian Shailendra Kumar of the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party.

A senior Federal Health Ministry official said on condition of anonymity that the government is aware of the problem and could bring in new laws soon.

According to the existing law, doctors and hospital authorities have to provide a reasonable amount of care for patients. Apparently, a doctor, therefore, does not have to try and do everything he can to cure every patient who comes to him, he said.

“Probably this needs a re-look," he added.

AMRI officials and doctors were unavailable for comment.

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