Recurring attacks on medical staff — as many as 10 a month — tarnish image of Kerala’s healthcare sector

Government promises stringent measures, but doctors say little has been done to counter the violence so far.

ByK A Shaji

Published May 12, 2023 | 1:02 PM Updated May 12, 2023 | 1:02 PM

march vandana

The Government of Kerala has decided to name a new block at the Taluk Hospital in Kottarakkara, district Kollam, after Dr Vandana Das, the house surgeon who was stabbed to death in police presence.

It has also decided to make amendments to an 11-year-old Act, meant to protect healthcare professionals, by introducing clauses ensuring stringent punishment to those unleashing violence in hospitals.

The decisions came too late. Dr Vandana Das, 25, was consigned to flames on Thursday, 11 May, even as news media reported another instance of an accused in police custody attacking a duty doctor and showering profanities on nurses attending to him at a hospital in Nedumkandam in the Idukki district.

The Nedumkandam incident was a repeat of what happened at the Kottarakkara Taluk Hospital around 4.30 am on Wednesday 10 May. The only difference being the Idukki doctor is alive to tell the tale of survival.

Dr Das was not as lucky. She froze as F Sandeep, a schoolteacher with a known history of alcohol and drug abuse, picked up a pair of surgical scissors and stabbed her 11 times.

About four hours later, she was declared dead at a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, some 145 km from her home in Kottayam.

Before the incident, the decision to amend an Act meant to protect healthcare professionals was in cold storage for 11 years.

Also read: As Dr Vandana’s mortal remains are laid to rest

The Nedumkandam incident

The duty doctor and nurses of the Nedumkandam taluk hospital were targeted on the same day Dr Das was fatally attacked.

Doctors said the police brought Praveen, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, to the hospital without handcuffs. The police had picked up an inebriated Praveen after he was involved in a scuffle.

The man was showing signs of being violent, they said. The police allegedly looked on as he took on the doctor and nurses, till other hospital staff intervened and restrained him. The doctor and nurses attended to him even after the incident.

These incidents are not isolated in Kerala. Doctors across Kerala struck work after the death of Dr Das, and even as the government was holding talks with the protesters, a knife-wielding man barged into a hospital premises in Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district.

The man had stabbed another at a market minutes earlier. This time, however, the police overpowered him.

Also read: Strike by medical staff after killing of on-duty lady doctor

An Act to protect

Such incidents are recurring in Kerala hospitals. Dr PK Ashokan, a cardiologist at Fatima Hospital in Kozhikode, knows it first-hand. He was brutally attacked by a patient’s attender in March.

“If the government is serious about making amendments to the Kerala Healthcare Service Persons and Healthcare Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage to Property) Act, 2012, the maximum punishment must be extended from the present three years to at least 10 years,” he opined.

“In the case of severe attacks, provisions of the Kerala Epidemic Diseases Act must be invoked. Nobody has been punished so far under the existing Act. Sandeep may be tried and punished for murder. But in other cases, justice remains elusive,” he told South First.

Dr Ashokan’s wife and colleague, Dr Anitha, was treating the patient when the bystander launched an attack in the presence of 14 policemen.

“The injuries I suffered are yet to heal,” Dr Ashokan added. The accused is now out on bail.

A month ago, a woman doctor at a government hospital in Thiruvananthapuram was attacked by two criminals brought in by the police at midnight.

In March, a patient stabbed two hospital employees at the Kayamkulam taluk hospital.

Doctors under siege: Resident doctors assaulted in Hyderabad hospital

IMA’s stand

Dr Sulphi Noohu, the state president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), said an average of 10 cases of violence against health professionals are being reported from across Kerala in a month.

“The police adopt a casual approach in such cases, and the proceedings often consume time. CCTV cameras are either not installed or dysfunctional in most government hospitals,” he said.

“The security facilities are also extremely inadequate,” he told South First.

Kerala Government Medical Officers’ Association (KGMOA) president Dr. TV Suresh told South First that the government had assured it would seriously consider the demand to declare hospitals as protected zones.

He was among those who held talks with the chief minister and health minister on Thursday.

The organisation has also other sought steps, including filing FIR in hospital attack cases within one hour and completing the probe within a month. It has also wanted speedy trials in special, fast-track courts.

It also wanted to deploy armed reserve police in hospitals and create police aid posts in emergency wings where criminals are often brought in for treatment.

Redefining hospitals

Late on 11 May, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the media that the ordinance to amend the law would be tabled in the next Cabinet meeting. He also said necessary changes in defining healthcare institutions and health workers and punishments would be added.

Hardly a year has gone by since the security staff of the Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode were beaten up by activists of the CPI(M) ‘s youth wing, the DYFI.

The provocation was that they were denied entry to the superintendent’s office through an entry-restricted gate. The attackers are still at large.

“False cases are being slapped on the security staff,” human rights activist Advocate PA Pouran said.

Focus on medico-legal protocol

Meanwhile, Dr Das’s murder has triggered a debate on the new medico-legal protocol adopted by the state, which keeps the police away during the medical examination of an arrested person.

When the police inaction in the Kottarakkara murder was reported, CPI(M) social media handles circulated copies of a Government Order on the protocol, dated 5 May, 2022.

They quoted the protocol to justify the police officers who stayed away while the man turned violent.

“The accompanying police officers should keep themselves away during the medical examination to provide sufficient privacy during the interaction between the medical officer and the arrested person. But it must be done without giving any chance for the arrested person to make an escape bid,” the circulated protocol said.

Meanwhile, Dr K Prathibha, a Kozhikode-based physician who gained a court verdict compelling the government to issue the order ensuring the accused’s privacy, clarified that the protocol has nothing to do with the Kottarakkara incident.

She said the doctor was murdered as the police were least prepared to handle such a situation.

“In my petition, I had never objected to police presence during medical examinations. My demand was for medical officers not to be misled or influenced during the medical examination,” she said.

“It is necessary to examine arrested persons to identify whether they were tortured in custody. The accused may not be comfortable sharing such information In the presence of the police. The new protocol was aimed at avoiding such situations,” Dr Prathibha explained.