Medical Malpractice: A Long Fight for Fairness and Justice

While it can often be frustrating waiting for a medical malpractice lawsuit to take years to work its way through Chicago’s local courts, halfway around world, one country is only just beginning to recognize the need to provide legal protections and fair compensation to victims of horrible medical mistakes. On March 7, 2015, National Public Radio (NPR) explored the story of Dr. Kunal Saha and his fight to force his native country of India to establish legal protections that hold doctors accountable when they commit malpractice.

17 years ago, Dr. Saha, a researcher in HIV/AIDS at Ohio State University, and his wife, Anuradha, were visiting their family in Calcutta. While there, Anuradha developed a fever and rash requiring a hospitalization. In the course of her treatment, the local doctor, Sukumar Mukherjee, incorrectly administered the wrong dose of Depo Medrol, an anti-inflammatory steroid. Dr. Mukherjee inexplicable administered a dose of the steroid twice a day contrary to the recommended administration of once every two weeks. Dr. Mikherjee’s rational for this decision was that he had “seen the drug work like magic.” Instead, the astronomical dose of Depo Medrol destroyed Anuradha’s immune system quickly killing her.

At the time, India’s legal system made it virtually impossible to hold doctors accountable for their negligence. In fact, when Dr. Saha filed a lawsuit against Dr. Mukherjee and three other doctors who were involved in his wife’s treatment, he quickly lost. Undeterred, in 2001 Dr. Saha started an organization called People for Better Treatment. He then began a decade long battle against India’s entrenched medical and legal system to recognize and find a legal recourse for victims such as Anuradha.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are so difficult in India because it is virtually impossible to identify doctors “who practice fraud, use shoddy research methods or harm patients through negligence or malpractice.” As the British Medical Journal analyzed on February 24, 2015, in India there exists a “medical culture where physicians are reluctant to speak out against other doctors due to fears that it could lead to harassment, career damage and disciplinary action against the doctor bringing the complaint.” Without doctors’ willing to provide an expert opinion, even in the most basic and obvious of situations, such as the death of Anuradha, lawsuits rarely succeed leaving no oversight for doctors who continuously provide poor medical care.

Dr. Saha and his organization continued fighting for ten years and finally, in 2009, India’s Supreme Court found Dr. Mukherjee and the three other doctors guilty of medical malpractice. The four doctors medical licenses were revoked and Dr. Saha was awarded the equivalent of $2 million US dollars contingent on a promise that the money would only be used to promote better healthcare in India. To date, Dr. Saha has kept his promise at high personal cost. His decade long battle for basic justice lead to a multitude of out of pocket costs eventually forcing him to file for bankruptcy.

His fight, however, was not in vain. In large part, due to Dr. Saha’s victory, India recently enacted the Whistle Blowers Protection Act. According to NPR, this landmark law “offers protections against retaliation to anyone who discloses fraud, corruption or mismanagement in public office, including government hospitals and clinics — but it does not apply to individuals who raise concerns about healthcare workers in the private sector.” The results, while early, have shown an increase in accountability. For example, in 1998, there were no lawsuits for medical malpractice in India. This past January, eight doctors lost their license due to poor medical care.

Dr. Saha credits his ability to bring about this change to his unique background as a doctor, native Indian and American citizen. While there is still a long way to go to create a fully fair and equitable system in his native country, Dr. Saha hopes to use his medical knowledge, as well as his experience seeing medical accountability through the American justice system to “continue fighting so I can make it [India] an honest and fair system.” By all accounts he has, so far, been successful in his fight. As Dr. K. Srikar Reddy, a physician with the Indian Foreign Ministry stated, Dr. Saha “has brought transformation in India regarding medical negligence by creating awareness — and saving lives.”