It was close to 11 pm on August 18, and 23-year-old Anitha* was lying down, barely conscious, on a bed in Vijaya Hospital. Constant bouts of fever and body pain over the last month had landed her in the High Dependancy Unit (HDU) in this Chennai hospital. The young woman, who works in New Delhi, had flown back to her hometown to address her health issues. Two doctors had already examined her, specifically her abdomen which was the main source of pain. It was initially suspected that she had contracted typhoid.
She had come into the hospital at 9 pm, and by 11 pm, she assumed the bodily checks and blood tests for the night were finally done. Family and phones were not allowed into the HDU and she was ready to get some sleep after a tiring day. But a young doctor in hospital scrubs came in to the enclosure she was in, to conduct yet another body examination. The nurse who accompanied him left them alone, and the doctor even closed the curtains, Anitha recalls.
"While other examinations only lasted upto three minutes, this doctor was touching and groping me for close to 15 minutes. I was so tired, I couldn't even scream," alleges Anitha. "I was in a thin hospital gown that didn't even cover my back. In the name of examining me, he touched my genitals, made me turn over and even pressed my buttocks," she adds.
The continuous pressure applied to her legs and thighs was causing her skin to swell up but the doctor allegedly just used this as an excuse to touch her further.
"I initially gave this doctor the benefit of the doubt and thought he was doing his job," says Anitha. "But there was no reason to touch my genitals," she adds, her voice shaking.
"That night, I couldn't accept what happened and I just wanted to forget the ordeal," she says. "But the next day, when I woke up shivering and scared, I knew the truth. I had been molested," she adds.
A case of professional abuse
What Anitha alleges to have experienced is a case of professional abuse. According to activists, this is a pattern of conduct in which a person takes advantage of a victim within the context of their profession. In such scenarios the victim normally has good reason to place significant trust in the abuser.
Cases of professional abuse are usually very difficult to detect and expose, especially in hospital settings. Professional organisations and licensing boards are thus expected to have strong codes of ethics that define appropriate professional behaviour and systems to investigate any allegation of violation of these ethics.
But in Anitha's case, despite a complaint and legal notice, Vijaya Hospital has allegedly been protecting the accused.
How the Hospital reacted
On August 21, Anitha mustered the courage to give an oral complaint to the Chief Medical Officer of Vijaya Hospital. The next day, her mother gave a written complaint to the Human Resources Manager, demanding serious action be taken against the accused doctor. The family specifically pointed out that a female nurse or attendant was not present during the examination.
The hospital promised to take action, but when the victim's sister expressed discomfort over their stay, authorities allegedly produced discharge papers. When the family protested, the patient was informed that she was suffering from leptospirosis the next day and advised that treatment could continue from her home.
"We were then told that the doctor had absconded and the hospital was unaware of his whereabouts," says Anitha. "But the next day, my father went to the hospital with our lawyer. The hospital authorities then claimed that he had informed them and gone on leave. They also said that an investigation that was conducted revealed that he was following protocol. They told my father that the doctor can talk to me and clarify the matter. But how can I sit next to my abuser and talk?" asks Anitha.
When the lawyer asked for the investigation report or for details of panel members however, the hospital allegedly had nothing to offer.
Anitha's lawyer then issued a legal notice to Vijaya Hospital asking for a detailed report about the action or investigation conducted against the doctor, and her father wrote to the Indian Medical Association.
The legal notice stated, 'According to the medical council of India’s code of ethics, the physician shall not aid or abet torture nor shall he be a party to either infliction of mental are physical trauma are concealment of torture inflicted by some other person or agency in clear violation of human rights. Making a statement about adultery or improper conduct, the MCI says “Abuse of professional position by committing adultery or improper conduct with a patient or by maintaining an improper association with a patient will render a physician liable for disciplinary action as provided under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956, or the concerned state medical council”.'
The hospital however failed to respond to the notice in the stipulated seven days.
When TNM contacted Vijaya Hospital, they confirmed that they had received both the complaint and legal notice from the victim.
"Our lawyer is responding to them and they will receive the information shortly," says Sebastine, head of the Human Resources team, who also happens to be the one who received Anitha's complaint. "We cannot comment further on the matter," she adds.
Dr GR Ravindranath, general secretary of Doctors Association for Social Equality, points out that the absence of a nurse or attendant is against the Indian Medical Council rules.
"In a professional setting such as this, it is critical to take action is such cases immediately. An investigation must be held," he explains. "When a male doctor is examining a female patient there must be a female attender. The lack of a female attender by itself raises questions," he adds.
For Anitha who took up a job in New Delhi just two months back, this entire ordeal has cost her both professionally and mentally. The hospitalisation and resultant legal action, has made it impossible for her return to New Delhi. She is also set to file a case against the hospital in a consumer court, which means she will have to keep coming to the city when trial begins.
*Name changed to protect identity