Politics has changed the meaning of the word, ‘compensation’ in India. Each serious accident or major devastation brings forth competing declarations by political leaders, offering compensation to victims’ families and survivors. The Supreme Court’s award of a truly decent sum, the largest in India’s medical history, for the death of Anuradha Saha through medical negligence, has given back to ‘compensation’ its serious connotation. By virtue of the court’s decision, compensation becomes the symbol of the accountability of the country’s health care system. The court has reportedly commented that regulatory mechanisms, backed by law whenever necessary, should be used to govern private hospitals and nursing-homes. Such forms of accountability should be applicable to government health care systems too, for at its broadest, the court is reasserting also the value and dignity of life, and the right of everyone to health and proper treatment.
The compensation takes into consideration, broadly speaking, the amount the victim would have earned had she lived, and the expenses incurred by her husband in pursuing the case for 15 painful years. But the bulk of the amount, the court has decided, is to be paid by the hospital where the doctors engaged in the treatment were empanelled. The doctors pay far less. The logic, reportedly, is that the institution is to be held responsible for the actions of its empanelled doctors. In any case, the court reportedly feels that the doctors erred in negligence, not in rash action. As long as doctors, caregivers and all non-medical staff are more alert in patient care and hold themselves accountable for every stage of it as a result of this court action, the judgment can only be welcome. But a family that has lost a loved one to an uncaring hospital or casual doctors can always ask whether there is any meaningful difference between negligence and rash action if the result is tragedy.
This judgment opens up the horizon of medical compensations, something that countries in the West have been used to. But however large the amount seems to a country not used to its hallowed medical men and expensive hospitals being accused so dramatically, the judgment seems to be partly cushioning the shock as well. The court has calculated the total amount on the basis of a simple interest of 6 per cent, which may be considered fairly low, apart from the fact that the interest is simple, not compound. Besides, it has not set a penal amount on top of this. A penal amount is more common in the West, where it is considered part of deterrence. While this is a promising thrust towards medical accountability, it must also be remembered that few people can keep up the fight for justice for 15 years, running from court to court. To make this judgment meaningful for future sufferers, the justice system too must speed up.