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‘Anuradha’s death due to medical negligence must have a bigger purpose in life’

Dr Kunal Saha, a US-based professor and private consultant in HIV/AIDS, is known for his struggle against a case in which his wife, Anuradha Saha, died at the age of 36 at Kolkata-based Advanced Medicare Research Institute (AMRI) of medical negligence on May 28, 1998.

Dr Kunal Saha

Since the incident, Dr Saha has travelled tirelessly between US and Kolkata, between the Supreme Court, Calcutta High Court and other lower courts in hope of bringing the culprits of medical negligence to justice.

His quest for justice was finally answered on October 24, when the Supreme Court, in a major ruling, awarded him Rs 6.08 crore for the death of his wife.

Dr Saha is also president of Kolkata-based NGO – People for Better Treatment, an initiative that was launched with an aim to eradicate medical negligence and promote corruption-free healthcare in India. He is also known for his open criticism against misadministration in medical governing bodies.

In an exclusive interview with India Medical Times, Dr Kunal Saha narrated his struggle to go against all odds and expressed his satisfaction on the Supreme Court verdict.

What exactly happened to your wife, Anuradha Saha?

Anuradha was afflicted with a disease, which in a layman’s term may be called as “drug allergy”. There are various types of drug allergies. The type she had is medically known as “toxic epidermal necrolysis” (TEN), which could happen as an allergic reaction to almost any drug or non-drug like vitamins and even gin and tonic. After her death, I have done extensive research on this area and even published a review article in the Indian Journal of Dermatology in 2000.

The people named in different cases in this relation (civil and criminal) are Dr Sukumar Mukherjee, a senior medicine specialist based in Kolkata who is presently the “chief adviser” of West Bengal Health Department; Dr Baidyanath Halder, a veteran dermatologist; late Dr Abani Roy Chowdhury, a medicine specialist who died two years ago; and Dr Balaram Prasad, a junior cardiologist who was also my classmate in medical school in Kolkata.

What difficulties did you come across in this struggle?

Of course, it was extremely difficult to fight this legal as well as public battle staying thousands of miles away in a country where at least at that point of time, i.e. 1998, doctors were literally “untouchable” and the term “medical negligence” was virtually non-existent in dictionary.

In a country (India) where pervasive corruption has plagued almost every sphere of public services, it was seemingly impossible to imagine that I could win this battle against the highly influential medical fraternity. So, I had all odds stacked against me right from the very beginning. But I never lost the faith because the incomprehensible death of my wife during a brief social visit to our homeland almost at the beginning of our family together must have a much bigger purpose in life.

Over the past almost 16 years, I’ve spent at least 1.5 million dollars to fight this legal battle in India. These expenses include not only the hefty fees for the lawyers in India but also numerous personal trips (as many as 4-5 each year), which also weighed heavily on my professional research career. In fact, despite making a decent income in USA as a tenure-track professor in one of the largest public universities (Ohio State University) as well as a private consultant on HIV/AIDS, I eventually had to file bankruptcy and foreclose my home in 2011.

Professionally, my tenure was eventually rejected by OSU solely because of my long absence in India where my attorneys categorically told me that there is no chance to win this legal battle with complex medical issues without my physical presence during the trial. Although I still have my research lab (since a lawsuit is still pending against my hospital), I’ve been working primarily as a private consultant (since denial of my tenure) but also work as an Adjunct Professor here in Columbus, Ohio.

How significant do you consider the verdict?

While I cannot say that I’m very pleased with the quantum of compensation awarded last week by the Supreme Court after spending so much money on my own only to fight this legal battle, but this fight was never for money. If it were, this battle with virtually no chance of winning back in 1998 would have never begun. In that way, I’m very happy with the Apex Court verdict because it has sent the right message to the hitherto untouchable medical community in India.

In the context of India, the verdict has undoubtedly raised the value of average human life in India. Until now, even on the rare occasions when a court held the doctor/hospital guilty for medical negligence causing death of a patient, the compensation generally awarded is in the vicinity of a paltry sum of few lakh rupees with which you perhaps won’t be able to purchase a second-hand car. Is the worth of a human life less than that of a junky second-hand car? This paltry compensation also failed to have any deterrent effect on the wealthy doctors/hospitals of India. In fact, the meagre compensation (after decade or more long litigation process) generally awarded by Indian consumer courts has encouraged more incidence of “medical negligence”.

This verdict is surely going to change the absolute travesty of justice and elevate the value of human lives in India. The verdict is also going to send some threatening signals to the doctors of India and as a result, I am confident that they would be more careful for treatment of their patients. And that is perhaps the biggest victory for this long 16-year-old fight.

What was the objective behind founding the People for Better Treatment?

As I said, I firmly believe that Anuradha’s death in 1998 in the most unfathomable fashion must have a bigger purpose in life. There is not one Anuradha in India. Many Anuradhas have kept on dying needlessly in India only because of the lack of a little more care and compassion on part of many doctors, not all, who are practicing there. In fact, Anuradhas are still dying today even though some awareness about medical negligence and patients’ rights has been generated in the course of my long legal fight for justice in India.

I established “People for Better Treatment” (PBT), a purely charitable organization in 2001 to promote a better healthcare delivery system, to eradicate the pervasive corruption in medicine and to help the hapless victims of medical negligence in India.

Thousands of alleged victims of malpractice have already come to PBT from all parts of India seeking help in their quest for justice. Over the past more than 11 years, PBT has brought major changes in the grossly flawed healthcare regulatory system in India. For example, our PIL (public interest litigation) in the Supreme Court has brought new laws that medical councils in India must investigate and dispose of complaints against doctors within a maximum period of six months. Until now, complaints against doctors were just collecting dust in the medical council office. We uncovered that a complaint filed in the 1960 was still undecided by the Kerala Medical Council.

The inherent problem and corruption in the health regulatory system have given rise to unscrupulous doctors like Dr Ketan Desai sitting at the helm of MCI (Medical Council of India) until 2010 when he was caught red-handed by the CBI in a sting operation while taking bribe from a private medical college in exchange to grant the MCI recognition.

Although my personal battle for justice for my departed wife might have ended last week with this historic verdict by the Supreme Court, PBT and I will continue this battle for justice for the humanity and to save innocent lives in India until the medical regulatory system is cleansed from all evils of corruption and start working to save the innocent patients from the wrath of the errant medicos and not shield their delinquent medical colleagues.

by Vidhi Rathee

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