The proposed central legislation on the protection of medical professionals from physical assaults is a welcome move as it seeks to address a disturbing trend in society. There have been growing incidents of attacks on duty doctors and nursing staff across the country. Often, the culprits happen to be the relatives of patients who resort to violence alleging medical negligence. It is the junior doctors and nurses, stressed and overworked in the face of woefully inadequate facilities at government hospitals, who often become victims of assault. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has now threatened a nationwide agitation if the Centre failed to bring in a tough legislation to protect the medical staff. Though 19 States have passed laws in this regard, the incidents of assaults happen with unfailing regularity. Poor infrastructure and severe shortage of staff, medicine and equipment are at the heart of the systemic problems plaguing the healthcare sector. After much delay, the Union Health Ministry has now come out with a draft legislation envisaging stringent action against the attackers, including imprisonment up to ten years and a maximum fine of Rs 10 lakh. The Healthcare Service Personnel and Clinical Establishments (Prohibition of violence and damage to property) Bill, 2019, makes any act of violence against doctors, nurses, midwives, medical students, ambulance drivers and helpers a non-bailable offence. The draft legislation also has provisions for monetary compensation for damage of property or documents in a clinical establishment. There is a need for enhancing security arrangements in hospitals and installation of CCTV cameras.
The death of a 73-year-old doctor in an attack by relatives of a tea garden worker at a hospital in Assam’s Jorhat district recently points to a dangerous trend. In June, doctors across the country held demonstrations seeking protection against attacks after two doctors at the NRS Medical College in West Bengal were assaulted by family members of a patient. Though several States, including West Bengal, have passed the Medical Protection Act, the implementation has been poor. Though offenders can get a jail term of up to three years, the Act fails to protect doctors because it features neither in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) nor in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). This makes it difficult for victims to approach the police for help. It is not possible to provide quality treatment to public in such an atmosphere of fear and violence. Overcrowding and absence of basic amenities, equipment and medicines at state-run hospitals make the matters worse. India has less than one doctor per 1,000 population and a Lancet study says that six out of 10 hospitals in poorer States do not provide intensive care and lack sanitation and drainage facilities.