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Legal antidote to medical lapses

Calcutta, April 3: A 91-year-old law is set to be overhauled, making it easier for patients to pursue cases of medical negligence and plugging a loophole that offers doctors amnesty even after they are found guilty.

'The draft to change the Bengal Medical Act has already been prepared and we will very soon place it before the government to change various clauses to bring greater transparency and accountability in the healthcare system,' said Ashok Choudhury, the president of the state medical council.

The Bengal Medical Act, the law that deals with medical negligence cases, was drawn up way back in 1914. Both patients and doctors have been complaining that the age-old act has several lacunae.

'Hopefully, the new act will address the patients' grievances as well as protect doctors from false allegations,' added Choudhury, who, along with the director of medical education, C.R. Maiti, has spearheaded the initiative.

The old act enabled the health secretary's office to exonerate doctors found guilty by the medical council. The acquittals have come despite the fact that the secretary might be a non-medical person.

'For years, we have stressed on the fact that the Medical Council of India should be the appropriate appellate body. We have seen many doctors exonerated despite being found guilty by the council,' said Subir Gangopadhyay, a senior Indian Medical Association functionary and past president.

The most common complaint against the council has been the inordinate delay in disposing of cases. But provisions are now being made to ensure that the cases are disposed of within six months.

The council's penal and ethical committee, which has only doctors now, will have non-medical members in its fold to remove any perception of 'bias'.

The suggested amendments also include a proposal to ensure that nursing homes and hospitals furnish documents on time. The revised law will require the establishments to send such papers to the council latest by two weeks or face punitive action.

The council, which comes across over 100 negligence cases a year, also hopes to address recurring problems that delay procedures.

Many doctors charged with medical negligence either change their address or turn out to be from another state, making it impossible for the council to track them down. Once the new law is in place, all doctors will have to keep the council informed of their address.

Doctors are often accused by patients of medical negligence, though the fault could lie with the nursing home or the hospital. The new act will ensure stricter monitoring of negligence charges.

A special team will be set up in the council to wrap up technical cases quicker.

Some doctors take refuge behind the plea that someone else was looking after the patient while he was away. But the new provisions will make the doctor totally responsible for the patient admitted under his charge.

'We will make sweeping changes in the act and make it stronger from all aspects,' Maiti said.

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