The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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One-man demolition squad tackles medical negligence

Whenever he is in the city, he moves around with an armed bodyguard. Threatened by anonymous callers, he takes precautions all the time. Stockily built but remarkably agile, he could be mistaken for a heavyweight boxer, reminding some of Muhammad Ali; like whom he, too, seems to believe in ‘ dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a bee’.

He is the man many city-based doctors passionately hate and some secretly admire. Fighting a seemingly impossible and quite possibly a losing battle, he continues to surprise his critics with his doggedness.

While the media have perceptibly tired of following Dr Kunal Saha’s five-year-old crusade against medical malpractice, the last fortnight showed that he still retains his ability to hit where it hurts.

A quick recap for those who may not have followed the drama. Saha and his wife, both US citizens, were on a short vacation to the city when his wife, Anuradha, developed drug-induced rashes on her skin. She was allegedly administered not only wrong drugs but also a dose that was several times higher than what was prescribed by the manufacturer.

Her condition swiftly deteriorated and she died. Saha went to court and after a remarkable trial, during which he managed medical evidence and witnesses from across the globe, secured the conviction of two respected physicians in the city.

But unhappy with the inadequate sentence — a three-month jail term and a fine — he has gone in appeal to the high court. He has also moved the National Consumers’ Forum, claiming damages of Rs 77 crore and given a written undertaking that he will not accept a single rupee if the quasi-judicial body awards damages. In a separate legal battle, now before the Supreme Court, he seeks cancellation of the medical registration of the convicted doctors.

Little wonder doctors see him as a predator on the prowl. Some have even insinuated that he is acting as an agent provocateur on behalf of multinationals. Others in the medical fraternity are deeply uncomfortable about his motives and the possible fallout. The one-man demolition squad’s single-point mission seems to be to get doctors to pay for medical negligence.

Although he claims to have received support from an overwhelming number of people, response to his crusade has been lukewarm, at best. While doctors make no secret of treating him as a pariah, not daring to attend even public meetings called by him in the city, the People for Better Treatment floated by him does not appear to have made much headway. Its website had been visited by just about 5,000 hits till last week and had not been updated since December 2002.

There’s little point in blaming the man possessed, though, running his public campaign and conducting not one but three legal battles from the United States. Just when it seemed his crusade was petering out, his lawyers last fortnight managed to achieve several breakthroughs.

The National Consumers’ Disputes Redressal Commission was persuaded to accept his offer of paying for a video link between Calcutta and the US so that he could be examined by the consumers’ forum and he could cross-examine the three accused doctors.

He is likely to end up paying Rs 5,000 for each day the link is used and this will possibly be the first time that a judicial proceeding in India will be making use of such communication technology to speed up trial.

His lawyers also successfully argued before the Supreme Court for it to admit his appeal against the president of the West Bengal Medical Council, which had turned down his plea to cancel the registration of the convicted doctors.

Medical negligence is, of course, difficult to prove under the prevailing system. That Saha secured conviction of two doctors was a minor miracle. It would be an even greater miracle if he manages to get the convictions upheld. But he has already made his point. The West looks at medical negligence differently and, indeed, more seriously, while we don’t.

When a consumer advocacy group in the United States, Public Citizen, sought to prepare a database on “questionable doctors” last year, as many as 6,700 physicians were identified in just 12 out of the 51 states. All these physicians had been “disciplined” by their respective medical boards at some time or the other, between 1992 and 2001.

They were found guilty of a large number of malpractices, ranging from “ incompetence and prescribing wrong drugs” to “ethical lapses and criminal convictions”.

In many of the American states, the courts directly inform medical boards if doctors are convicted, so their registration can be cancelled. Do we also need to draw any lesson'

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