Guest post by Pallavi Mohan
Recently, a mother approached the Delhi High Court to find out about the status of her son, who had been isolated in a hospital since the time of their arrival in India from an at-risk country. In the context of the pandemic, a patient and their family’s right to medical information is particularly important.
In 2018, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) released a charter with 13 rights of patients. These include the right to
- Adequate and relevant information about the nature and cause of illness, proposed investigations, care, complications and the cost of treatment
- Access the copy of their case papers, patient records, investigation report and a written, detailed itemised bill.
MoHFW had also written to State Governments in June 2019 urging them to adopt this Charter of Patients’ Rights, however, most States and Union Territories are yet to adopt this Charter. In the absence of the formal adoption of this Charter, it becomes difficult for a patient to enforce their rights.
What was the situation before the release of the Patients’ Right Charter of 2018?
Before 2018, no statute or charter spelt out the rights of patients. For this reason, most aggrieved persons were forced to approach the Courts to get their grievances redressed by invoking their rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Often, the Court would have to intervene to prevent the release of a person’s medical records to a third party on the grounds of privacy. There are very few cases where patients came to court to seek the release of their medical records from a hospital or a medical institution.
In 2014, the Central Information Commission (CIC) looked into whether a patient has the right to information and access to their medical records held by a medical institution. The patient in this case was an employee of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) who had been treated at a mental healthcare institution. She was denied access to her medical records because it would affect a departmental enquiry from being conducted against her. The CIC allowed the patient access to her medical records, stating that not only was such a right protected under RTI Act but also the Indian Medical Council Act and the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. The CIC further held that Articles 21, 19(1)(a) of the Constitution made it mandatory for public authorities and every hospital, public or private, to furnish medical records to the patient.
What is the relevance of a patient’s right to medical information in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Recently, a mother approached the Delhi High Court to find out about the status of her son, who had been isolated in a hospital since the time of their arrival in India from an at-risk country. At the airport, after the 18-year-old boy had tested positive for COVID-19, a second swab was taken and sent for genome testing. However, even after 4 days, the mother was not informed of the results of the genome test, and her son was not released from isolation.
She approached the High Court invoking the fundamental rights of her son under Article 19A (Right to Information) and Article 21 (Right to Privacy) to be informed of the results of the genome test. The High Court has directed that the report of the genome test be shared stating that it is not a matter of “national secret”.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when misinformation and panic spread quickly, it is even more important that all hospitals, medical institutions, laboratories and doctors maintain transparency regarding a patient’s medical record, so that they can get effective and timely medical care.