The emergence of a pandemic as severe as the Corona Virus outbreak has led to a paradigm shift in the legal and healthcare fields. A medical professional, by virtue of the powers vested to him because of skills, knowledge, and training, is obliged to follow an ethical code of conduct. In the absence of public health law in place, India has been fighting COVID-19 Pandemic using a 123-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act, an older still Indian Penal Code of 1860 vintage, and a recent Disaster Management Act of 2005. Besides these, there are 483 notifications issued by the Government related to COVID-19 from January 17, 2020, till April 19, 2020, all of which have been a major reason for the chaos in the Medico-Legal sector. In addition to these notifications and laws, the center and state governments, have provided numerous guidelines and rules for health care workers, which have mostly been contradictory and confusing.
Section 73 of the Disaster Management Act and Section 4 of the Epidemic Diseases Act specifically mention that no suit or legal proceeding will lie against an officer for action taken in good faith under these Acts. Unfortunately, even in these times, doctors have to face litigation for the alleged grievance of patients or for noncompliance of Provisions of Indian Penal Code, Clinical Establishment Act, PCPNDT Act, Biomedical Waste Management Rules, etc., even though they are working in exceptional circumstances. Being in accordance with the law, the doctors have to neglect their regular patients putting them at risk of complications, exposing our staff, and non–COVID-19 patients to COVID-19 positive, and managing the patients of COVID-19 with limited resources at their disposal.
To their relief, the Consumer Protection Bill, 2019, removed “healthcare” from the list of services to grant immunity to doctors from cases filed by disgruntled patients or their family members in consumer courts. In other words, patients or their family members can no longer approach a consumer court to file complaints against doctors or sue them for medical negligence.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there were multiple cases of assault against doctors by the families of the patients with the same grievance that the doctor was negligent, or that the patient wasn’t admitted in time, due to which many doctors across the country sat on strikes, demanding stricter laws and regulations for their own safety. The recent promulgation of an ordinance to amend the ED Act is a step to provide protection to the healthcare services personnel and their property from an act of violence during an epidemic. The ordinance declares such acts of violence, cognizable, and nonbailable offenses and defines penalties for the same.
When a doctor is faced with a person diagnosed with COVID-19, competent and previously informed, with hospital admission criteria and who refuses to comply with treatment, the hospital must inform the health authority to request a mandatory hospitalization due to a risk to public health from the administrative court, competent in these cases, for their authorization or ratification. The mandatory hospitalization of patients, led to a rapid decrease in PCR tests, as people feared that their loved one would be taken away from them, so they either wouldn’t get tested or treat themselves at home. The doctors knew that failure to adhere to government guidelines would result in facing the wrath of the government and serious legal consequences.
Our hospitals were not prepared for a pandemic this severe, which in turn resulted in a lack of oxygen cylinders, ventilators, and beds. The pandemic wreaked havoc in the country, oxygen cylinders were being purchased illegally, with hundreds waiting in parking lots and in the streets, and with the provisions mentioned in Indian Medical Council Regulation 2002, doctors are obligated to their duties as physicians and cannot arbitrarily refuse treatment, which is why telemedicine was legalized, wherein doctors could virtually prescribe medicines.
In conclusion, doctors do face the moral obligations to treat patients, but they still have the same rights as any other citizen and derive to be protected from infectious diseases and should not be expected to work in suboptimal conditions. One should be provided with proper training, PPE kits, environmental controls, guidelines, and policies.