Doctors owe a constitutional duty to treat the have-nots: SC

October 15, 2018 0 By CH Unnikrishnan

India’s Supreme Court, while deliberating on the case pertaining to the Delhi government’s circular to hospitals built on subsidised land, has observed that members of the medical profession owe a constitutional duty to treat the poorer sections of the society.

Doctors cannot refuse to treat a person who is in dire need of treatment by a particular medicine or by a particular expert merely on the ground that he is not in a position to afford the fee payable for such an opinion or treatment, the court ruled.

Setting aside the Delhi High Court order that had dismissed the circular issued by the Delhi government, the SC bench directed all the hospitals in Delhi to go by the conditions imposed by the government.

The circular issued by the Government of NCT of Delhi had asked the hospitals built on subsidized land to provide free treatment to 10% indoor patients and 25% outdoor patients from the economically backward people.

The court upheld the Delhi government circular saying that such stipulation for free treatment does not amount to restriction under Article 19(6) on the right enshrined under Article 19(1)(g).

The bench also directed the government to file periodic reports for one year on the compliance of the conditions by hospitals in Delhi.

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What the Supreme Court said

Describing the denial of proper treatment to a person belonging to the lower economic strata of the society as inhuman, Justice Arun Mishra made some observations about medical profession and ethics in his 124-page judgement.

  Medical profession deals with the life of human beings. There has to be a balancing of human rights with the commercial gains.

  Members of the medical profession owe a constitutional duty to treat the have-nots. They cannot refuse to treat a person who is in dire need of treatment by a particular medicine or by a particular expert merely on the ground that he is not in a position to afford the fee payable for such an opinion/treatment. The moment it is permitted, the medical profession would become purely a commercial activity. It is not supposed to be so due to its nobleness.

  It would be inhuman to deny a person who is not having sufficient means, or no means, to afford life-saving treatment, simply on the ground that he is not having enough money. If treatment is refused due to financial reasons, it would be against the very basic tenets of the medical profession and the concept of charity in whatever form we envisage the same. Besides being unconstitutional, it would be violative of basic human rights.

 By and large, hospitals have now become centres of commercial exploitation and instances have come to notice when a dead body is kept as security for clearance of bills, which is per se illegal and a criminal act. In future, whenever such an act is reported to the police, it is supposed to register a case against the management of the hospital and all concerned doctors involved in such an inhumane act which destroys the basic principles of human dignity and is tantamount to a criminal breach of the trust reposed in the medical profession. The state spends and invests a huge amount of public money on the making of a doctor, and it is the corresponding obligation on the part of the doctor to serve the needy. Treatment cannot be refused on the ground of financial inability of the patient.

 Besides wrong reporting, uncalled for investigation — inclusive of invasive tests on the heart and other parts of the body, which are wholly unnecessary — are performed. It is time for soul-searching for big hospitals in and around Delhi, Gurgaon and other places. They must ponder what they are doing. Is it not a criminal act? The fact that action is not taken does not absolve them of the responsibility. Time has come to fix accountability and to set right the evils which have rotten the system. The medical profession had never been intended to be an exploitative device to earn money at the cost of the patients who require a godly approach and the helping hand of doctors. Every prescription starts from Rx, not from the amount of bill. Big commercial international hospitals, are not above the ethical standards which they have to maintain at all costs, including by extending financial help to the have-nots.

 The hospitals nowadays have five-star facilities. The entire concept has been changed to make commercial gains. They are becoming unaffordable. The charges are phenomenally high, and at times unrealistic compared with the service provided. The dark side of such hospitals can be illuminated only by the sharing of the obligation towards economically weaker sections of the society. It would be almost inhuman to deny proper treatment to the poor owing to economic conditions.