Medical Consumer Protection Act: A Loss making deal for patients too?

       With the evolving medical science and health care getting intertwined with business, braided changes in medical regulation and law are not an unexpected development. New models of medical regulation, business and law in health care have emerged and progressed in last few decades.  Despite a wish to govern and regulate medical profession strictly, the laws and regulations still have to go a long way to provide real justice to everyone.   No one really knows how to regulate this difficult area,  which encompasses life and death, deals with extremes of poverty and riches, mortality and morbidity, pain and  relief , sadness and happiness, smiles and sorrow and other uncountable emotions, all intertwined with financial aspects.But the wish of administrators to govern medical profession strictly with punishments is not new.  Hammurabi (5000 years back) at the start of civilization believed that doctors needed to be punished in case there was a poor outcome. Strangely it was at a time, when no one understood the complexity of human body and the limitations of medical science; even basic anatomy and physiology of body was not discovered.  

      Considering the limitations of medical science along with uncertainties and complexities of human body, regulation of medical profession and system of punishments still remains somewhat unfair to doctors, even after 5000 years.  It is still based on principles of revenge and retributions rather than developing a robust system by learning from mistakes. By application of an average wisdom, doctors can be easily blamed for poor outcomes, as they are always and universal a common visible link between treatment and poor outcome. 

           One of the examples of easy punishments for doctors is Medical consumer protection act that was implemented in 1995 for medical services. Patients were defined as consumers and hence doctors were converted to service providers in lieu of some money.  Consequently the changed definitions altered the doctor-patient relationship in an irreversible way.   

    The reality is that neither doctors, nor patients are ready for such a legal relationship. More-over   the system is not robust enough for such a change.   To work with weak infrastructure, non-uniform medical education, poor numbers of support staff, inept health system along with legal complexities has pushed doctors into a shell and predisposed them to harassment. 

          Rather than   developing a system to promote   good doctor-patient relationship, Medical Consumer Protection Act has created a situation of ‘us versus them syndrome’. It caused erosion of doctor-patient relationship and escalated cost of care.   Propagation of stray and occasional incidents about negligence case in court or their outcomes are given disproportionate wide publicity in media. The patients are unable to understand the correct application of such stray incidents to themselves. Such cases may be frivolous,  just one in million or a rarity, but people always try to imagine themselves being in the hospital chaos due to the   scenario projected.  It gives a negative projection about medical services and enhances patients’ fear to seek treatment at right time.

    There is a growing mutual mistrust; doctors too have started looking at every patient as a potential litigant. Especially while dealing with very sick ones, practice of defensive medicine is a natural consequence. This may manifest as excessive investigations, more use of drugs, antibiotics and even reluctance or refusal to treat very sick patients. 

    With the mandate to practise evidence based medicine, doctors need to document everything and to offer everything possible, leading to skyrocketing medical costs.  To save themselves, doctors have to do mammoth paper work, leading to consumption of time that was meant for real deliberations for the benefit of patients.

           Consequently insurance companies, medical industry and lawyers have become indispensable and have positioned themselves in between doctor and patients. Besides creating a rift between doctor and patient, they charge heavily from both sides; from patients (medical insurance, lawyer fee) and doctors (indemnity insurance, lawyer’s fee) alike. The vicious cycle of rising costs, need for insurance, medicolegal suits, and high lawyer fee (for patients and doctors) goes on unabated. All these contribute significantly to overall inflated cost of health care.

       Not uncommonly doctors are used as scape goats to have a concession on the patient’s treatment from administrators.  

       Medical consumer protection act has increased the anxiety and insecurity among   medical professionals.   Doctors can be dragged to courts for trivial reasons, for example the sense of revenge, simply for non-satisfaction, to extract money or simply for avoiding paying for services.  In an era where family members, brothers and sisters fight for money, it will be naïve to think that idea of making money from doctors does not exist. These money-making ideas are further stoked by the much publicized incidents of high compensations granted by courts.

     Medical lawsuits and complaints (right or wrong) are breaking medical professionals from within, not to mention the toll it takes on their confidence and belief, which takes a lifetime to build.

     Whenever there is adverse outcome in any patient, all the doctors involved start looking for whom to blame among themselves. Due to legal pressure they try to pinpoint each other’s mistakes.  Mutual understanding takes a back seat and the teamwork is spoiled permanently. Administrators in a bid to be safe, encourage putting doctor’s concerns against each other,  creating a strange sense of enmity among medical professionals.

    The ease with which doctors can be harassed has led to rampant misuse of medical consumer protection act and it has instilled a sense of deep fear and insecurity in the mind of medical professionals. The act has been used as a whip against the  doctors by all, including  medical industry, law industry and administrators.  Only doctors are visible as those who deliver care, so they remain at receiving end for poor outcomes and all these industries remain invisible.    The industry has used the protective systems against medicolegal cases to gain  maximum benefits  out of doctors’ hard work.   

      In court cases, a certain element of doubt always remains in mind of a doctor whether he will get justice in the long run, or will end up being  a victim of sympathy towards patient or clever lawyering.  So taking medical decisions in critical situations is becoming more difficult  in view of the future uncertainty of disease.

             Windfall profits for lawyers is a strong  incentive   for  law industry to promote   instigation  of patients by against doctors .  One can see zero fee and fixed commission advertisements on television by lawyers in health systems even in developed countries. They lure and instigate patients to file law suits and promise them hefty reimbursements on ‘sharing and commission basis’. There is no dearth of such relatives and lawyers who are ready to try their luck sometimes in vengeance and sometimes for the lure of money received in compensations. 

       Consequently doctors are now an easily punishable human link for poor outcomes.  Medical professionals work with continuous negative publicity, poor infrastructure, and preoccupied negative beliefs of society and burden of mistrust.

  Strangely  Medical Consumer Protection Act applies  only to doctors, that too selectively. All  other professions and services  are   out of it, not even other constituents of health services. Selective application is what is  demoralizing the doctors.  Considering the uncertainty and kind of work done by  medical professionals, actually it should be other way around.Mistakes are always easy to be picked with retrospective analysis and with lawyers pondering over it for years. In such situations, doctors are sitting ducks for any kind of blackmail.

            Nothing else has ever distracted doctors more than medico-legal cases and punishments. In certain circumstances, saving themselves becomes more important than saving a patient. Decision making also becomes difficult  by uncertainty of prognosis,  grave emergencies, split second lifesaving and risky decisions that may later be proved wrong by retrospective analysis with wisdom of hindsight with luxury of time and fault-finding approach.  The possibility of complex medico-legal situations in doctor’s  mind are enough to distract doctors from their primary point of intentions ‘the treatment’.

          Therefore increasingly, financially secure doctors are staying away from the riskier jobs. No wise person will like to face medicolegal complexities in older age. Taken to court for a genuine decision is enough to spoil and tarnish health, wealth and fame that was earned by  slogging  the  entire  life.     

     Patients can have poor outcomes for many reasons. It can be severe disease, poor prognosis, rare or genuine complications or even unintentional mistake or human errors, system errors or deficiency. Whatever court decides,  while consuming years, the harassment of doctor is full and permanent. Even if court decides in favour of the doctor, there is no compensation possible for the sufferings and agony spanning over years.  Therefore, a single mistake can undo all the good work of past, and the illustrious future work that could have been accomplished.

        If the decision to decide or act or help someone in an emergency situation, puts one’s own life and career at risk, why would anyone put himself in that difficult  position?  

         Medical Consumer Protection Act  has become a tool to harass doctors and money making tool for lawyers, medical industry or administrators. But  it would be naïve to assume that by whipping doctors and regulating them in such a harsh manner will be helpful to patients in long run.  The consequent insecurity among doctors, practise of defensive medicine, enhanced costs, excessive documentation and the distraction from the primary point of intention (treatment)  are few of the  side effects, which will  definitely be passed on to the patients inadvertently.  After all doctors have to save themselves as well. As a result,  now the battle of life and death will be fought with less zeal, with subdued and demoralized soldiers.

          Patients are unable to realize their loss for punishing their saviours. For doctors, no rewards if you win, but sword hanging if one loses.  Fear factors on doctors and impact of present legal complexities is already at par with that of Hammurabi’s era. Consequently being consumer may be overall a loss making deal for the patients.

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