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Be a pest and ask questions, before medical negligence ends up causing serious problems

Many years ago, a typically British-humour movie series had titles starting with “Carry On…” One was a film called “Carry On, Doctor”. The protagonist was a rather nasal surgeon in charge of an operation. Having completed his ‘procedure’, he raised his hand to check the time. Oh! My God! Where was the wrist watch?

Then follows the punch line. “And it’s an alarm.” Medical negligence; with daily warnings to boot.

Law has come a long way since this ‘bells and whistle’ episode. We have heard of cotton and gauze being tucked away in tummies. An article in a previous issue of Moneylife had a reference to mixed up ears while operating. And many more.

What follows are real-life experiences involving the author personally. While lying on the operating table for a broken femur, a nurse sounded a warning. “…make sure the doctor operates on the correct leg. He had once opened up the wrong knee of a woman.” Thanks, miss, but why not simply paint the leg to be cut up? Or tag it with a large sign?

In the mid-1970s, an 80-year-old patient on the next bed was in agonising pain. He had to be tied down; sides of the bed raised to cradle him, sedation had to be given to control him. He had just been through a skin graft, following gangrene. The operation was absolutely perfect. After all, Dr Dastur never made mistakes. The nurses swore that “no patient ever has any complications.”

Maybe THAT was the problem. Complacency. After a most successful surgery, the patient was moved to the general ward for recovery. He was now under the physician’s care. A senior doctor, the physician, would troop in every morning, retinue of medicos in his wake, and shoutinstructions left, right and centre. Awe was the prevalent emotion. On Monday, the old man was more than active. On Thursday, the physician deigned to stop at his bed for longer than the mandatory one second. The man was sinking from acute bowel movements. “Oh, my God. You’re feeding milk to a diarrhoea patient?” Nearly 40 years later, the doctor’s exact words still ring in my ears.
The old man died that night.

Wrong medicines, incorrect nursing, over-burdened staff, rent-seeking cleaners, all combine to make the hospital a disaster zone. No wonder, medical negligence practice is the lawyers’ new frontier. In fact, this very article had its birth in an advertisement for a certificate course for advocates specialising in this now-lucrative field.

You be the judge.

Who was at fault? That is the question that must be answered. If there is a malady (pun intended), there has to be a remedy. In the instant case, it was the hospital, no doubt. And the doctor physician and his staff of medicos. Yet, having seen this episode unfolding for four days, blame must also lie with the old man’s son. He would visit his father for a couple of minutes each evening, just to pay the private wardboy his daily wages and disappear.

In today’s world, the whole team would have been hauled over the coals. Manslaughter would have been too mild a charge. Forget costs. Imprisonment would definitely have followed. The old man did not die. He was killed. Negligence, at its utmost. Duty of care, at its nadir. It happened; it may still be happening; it will continue to happen.

So what does the public do? Just as eternal vigilance is the price one pays for democracy and freedom, constant enquiry will save your kin. Ask questions. The doctor is bound to answer. Ensure that there is no mix-up in the application of medicines and treatment. And bring any obvious fault to the notice of the management. In short, you have the right. Please enforce it. Even when hospitalisation is free.

Courtesy: Moneylife

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Queries and comments may be sent to "legalhelp@moneylife.in" <legalhelp@moneylife.in>

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