Reams have been written about the state of health care in India for years now. More so following the rapid deterioration of services in government hospitals and the proliferation of private medical institutions which fleece patients under the pretext of offering quality treatment. The simmering public anger against the State’s failure in ensuring affordable health care and weeding out corrupt practices in private hospitals and clinics often finds expression in vandalism. Aggrieved relatives of victims ransacking hospitals and beating up resident doctors have unfortunately become a routine affair, with state governments preferring to play mute witness. Against this backdrop, the observations of the Bombay High Court assume critical importance. During the course of hearing two petitions regarding the alleged detention of two patients — one at the Seven Hills Hospital in Marol, and the other at Prachin Healthcare Multi-Speciality Hospital in Panvel — the division bench has raised a few pertinent points, which also articulate the concerns of the majority of India’s population who are forced to seek treatment in private institutions for lack of credible alternative.
But first things first. Regardless of the outcome in the two cases, where it has been alleged that the hospitals had refused to release the patients to recover their dues, it must be said that detention, though illegal, is a common practice in many private institutions across the country to arm-twist people to pay up. Also the matter of inflated medical bills — a point of contention in both the cases — is nothing new.
Hospitals not only overcharge for the services they provide, they also bill for supplies and services, which a patient didn’t require. It is easy to dupe anxious relatives who in the eagerness to take their dear one home cast only a cursory glance at the discharge bill. Moreover, many people feel intimidated and powerless against these institutions because of their ignorance about the laws and forums, which can address their grievances. In the absence of government supervision, this sort of daylight robbery has only flourished.
The court’s observations, emphasising the need for private hospitals to display their rates to forewarn people of the costs involved as well as stressing on the issue of protecting institutions from vandalism, are prompted by the sheer state of lawlessness in health care. It has called into question the role of the Medical Council of India in punishing corrupt doctors and evolving a regulatory mechanism to rein in private enterprises.
The Centre’s order on Monday to private hospitals to maintain cost records and audit might bring in some order in the multi-billion dollar industry that is driven by greed, rather than the spirit of compassion and service. But the government’s responsibility shouldn’t end there. Along with cleaning up the system, there is also the need to address the causes instrumental in feeding the greed of private players. That would entail a complete overhaul of the state health care. The government hospitals in Mumbai, like the rest of the country, are mostly in the news for their pathetic conditions. Lacking basic infrastructure and wallowing in unhygienic conditions, they reek of neglect and apathy. The alarming incidence of mortality, sometimes owing to the negligence of doctors, has forced people to opt for private hospitals, which is way beyond their means. If existing government hospitals function to their potential in the cities and the districts, and the primary health-care centres in villages are spruced up, it can save lakhs of people from losing their dignity and meagre savings.