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Patients’ right to records underlined

New Delhi, Aug. 21: The Union law ministry today asked the health ministry to instruct hospitals to make patients’ medical records available to them whenever they or their relatives sought these.

The law ministry cited a Central Information Commission ruling that had ordered the disclosure of such information to a patient, who happened to be a former intelligence officer.

The ministry acknowledged that most of the time, hospital authorities did not provide to patients the details of their medical records.

Union law secretary P.K. Malhotra wrote to health secretary Lov Verma, saying the commission’s July 23 order stated that patients had a right to their medical records.

Hospital authorities have a duty to provide the records under the Consumer Protection Act, the Medical Council Act and constitutional rights, Malhotra said.

“If there are existing instructions to this effect, (they) need to be reiterated and the concerned authorities sensitised about (them),” Malhotra wrote. If such instructions did not exist, he said, the health ministry should consider issuing suitable rules.

A code of conduct issued in 2002 by the Medical Council of India — the apex medical regulatory body — had said that medical records requested by patients or relatives should be given within 72 hours.

But health sector observers say that the MCI code is not seen as legally binding on doctors or hospitals.

“Hospital authorities may choose to ignore the code in the knowledge that the MCI will not act against hospitals or doctors,” said Abhay Shukla, a community medicine specialist and coordinator with Sathi-Cehat, a non-government health organisation.

Provisions to make the handover of medical records mandatory could have been incorporated into the rules of the Clinical Establishment Act that seeks to regulate the functioning of hospitals, Shukla said. “But this doesn’t seem to have happened.

“We’re now hoping the (health) ministry at least makes this mandatory through the standards for the Clinical Establishment Act,” Shukla said.

Nisha Priya Bhatia, a former official of external intelligence wing RAW, had sought medical records from the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, New Delhi, where she had been admitted on the orders of Delhi High Court.

The records were refused with the institute citing Section 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act that allows authorities to withhold information that could impede an investigation.

Rejecting the contention, information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu said that patients have a right to their medical records. The right is rooted in Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

Acharyulu said information commissions could enforce this right of patients on both government and private hospitals under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, 2005.

Bhatia had alleged a “conspiracy” and an attempt to depict her as mentally sick just because she had filed complaints against her superiors.

“The background stated suggests that she is in dire need of the medical records to tell the world that she was not mentally sick but fit and also for defending her case before the appropriate forum,” Acharyulu noted.