Doctors Protest Harsh New Law on National Doctor’s Day, Citing Increased Penalties for Medical Negligence

Featured & Cover Doctors Protest Harsh New Law on National Doctor's Day Citing Increased Penalties for Medical Negligence

On National Doctor’s Day, doctors across the professional spectrum expressed discontent and anger, opting to protest rather than celebrate.

Their protests centered on a specific provision in the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS), which replaced outdated British-era laws. This discontent highlighted the medical community’s widespread concern about the legal change coinciding with National Doctors’ Day.

The new law imposes both a fine and a mandatory five-year jail term on doctors found guilty of negligence not amounting to culpable homicide. Previously, under the Indian Penal Code, penalties included a fine or up to two years in jail.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda extending greetings to doctors, many medical professionals saw the new BNS law as a punitive measure. One doctor called it a “gift from the government” designed to punish them.

Dr. Arun Gupta, president of the Delhi Medical Council, commented, “Earlier, the provision under 304 A did not specify medical professions, and it was of a general nature. However, the new law brings modern medicine practitioners into the ambit and clearly defines them. The law now makes jail term mandatory.” He questioned the lack of protection for doctors handling critically ill patients under the new law, asking, “What kind of protection will they have now?”

He expressed his concerns on Twitter: “BNS is here – happy Doctor’s Day from the government. Now, jail is a must in case of medical negligence. Think 100 times before you take a sick patient.”

Dr. Gupta further highlighted that a Supreme Court ruling had previously stated police negligence under 304 A must be severe to warrant action. The Court had also mandated that police could not register a case against a doctor without clearance from a competent medical body. He questioned the fate of these clauses now that the IPC had been repealed.

Dr. R.V. Asokan, National President of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), stated that they had communicated their concerns to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, arguing that doctors should be exempt from the law as their actions do not involve criminal intent. The IMA, representing over 3.5 lakh members, felt the new law unfairly increased penalties for doctors.

“The new law has in fact increased the punishment for the doctors. Doctors don’t deserve this,” Dr. Asokan told this paper.

Kerala-based Dr. K.V. Babu expressed his disappointment, saying, “Today, Doctors’ Day 2024, is a sombre day for doctors practising modern medicine in our country.” He added, “Hundreds of our colleagues have sacrificed their lives when our nation was going through the worst COVID pandemic. Now it seems that jail is ‘Modi Sarkar’s gift’ to medical professionals who will likely get convicted in case of unfortunate situations when a death occurs during treatment.”

During a parliamentary discussion last year, Shah had stated the criminal law bill was amended to provide relief to medical professionals in cases of death due to alleged medical negligence. He had promised to bring an amendment to protect doctors from being treated as criminals in such situations.

However, Dr. Rohan Krishnan, FAIMA national chairman, pointed out that doctors were not exempt from the new law and instead faced harsher penalties. “What was promised in the parliament has not been delivered. This change in the law can be misused against the doctor who genuinely works to save the patient’s lives. How will a doctor now treat an emergency patient? Now, doctors will refer serious cases to a government hospital as they would not want to be involved in litigation. In the end, the patient will suffer.”

Dr. Rajeev Jayadevan, past president of the IMA Cochin, explained that modern medical practice involves inherent risks. “Many of these carry an inherent risk of side effects, injury or death which is never intentional. This makes it different from homicide, notably because the action is taken in the patient’s best interest, and done with informed consent.” He added, “Despite the best efforts, bad outcomes do occur, such is the nature of the profession. Unfortunately, excessive fear of punishment discourages doctors from discharging their duties, and many are now opting to take up less risky specialties. This eventually will harm patients who are critically ill, and whose lives could be potentially saved.”

Dr. Dhruv Chauhan, national council coordinator of the Indian Medical Association-Junior Doctors Network (IMA-JDN), remarked, “This doctor’s day, we have got something which surely no doctor would probably want! The doctors working in the critical departments already have to worry before treating a sick patient thinking what if anything happens to the patient by trying to save life by critical approach then it’s the doctor who has to pay and suffer. The doctors should be relieved from these acts considering the sensitivity of our profession.”

Dr. Asokan suggested the government should clarify the provisions under Section 26 and Section 106 of BNS for the benefit of investigating officers (IO). He recommended that the home ministry instruct IOs to act against doctors only when there is clear evidence of recklessness or gross negligence and to register a case only after consulting a state medical expert team, as practiced in some states.

Previously, under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), those causing death by negligence not amounting to culpable homicide faced up to two years of imprisonment, a fine, or both. Under the new BNS law, Section 106 (1) prescribes up to five years of imprisonment and a fine for similar offenses, with mandatory imprisonment for those found guilty.

The BNS law defines a “Registered medical practitioner” as someone with a recognized medical qualification under the National Medical Commission Act 2019 and listed in the National Medical Register or a State Medical Register under that Act.

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