Tuesday, 27 October 2020

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It's discount season in hospitals
It's discount season in hospitals
Private hospitals, especially large corporate ones and hospital chains, are advertising aggressively to lure patients.
If it wasn't for the hospital gown and white coats, you might be forgiven for mistaking the newspaper flyer as a 'Sab se Sasta Sale' pamphlet. There are cut rates (with the original rates printed and crossed out) for medical procedures, including mastectomies and neck dissections. Discounts can go up to 50%.

It is raining hospital advertisements - from pamphlets about slashed rates for check-ups, procedures and IVF falling out of morning newspapers to sentimental, tearjerker ads about cancer treatment, surgeries, and ophthalmological procedures on television and radio. Private hospitals, especially large corporate ones and hospital chains, are advertising aggressively to lure patients.

Besides print and TV, there is extensive advertising on social media platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook as well.

"While doctors are penalized for advertising, the rules don't seem to apply to big businesses that run hospitals. Such an interpretation of the law favours big hospitals, putting doctors running smaller hospitals and individual clinics at a disadvantage. If doctors cannot advertise, then hospitals too should be banned from doing so. That way it will be a level playing field," said a senior doctor.

"The rules are very clear - the Medical Council of India ethics regulations 2002 section 6.1 states that soliciting of patients directly or indirectly, by a physician, by a group of physicians or by institutions or organizations is unethical. Hospitals are institutions and they cannot advertise," explained the registrar of the Maharashtra Medical Council.

And the money for the ads may be coming out of the patients' pocket. Dr GS Grewal, president of the Punjab Medical Council which has cracked down on advertising by both doctors and hospitals, says: "Many of the advertisements are in the garb of creating awareness. But it is obvious that they are not for awareness but for soliciting patients. The money for all these advertisements is coming out of the patients' pockets. Where else do these hospitals get the money for the ads? This is pushing up healthcare costs."

According to Dr Grewal, the annual advertising budget of a corporate hospital group ran into several crores. Since Dr Grewal took charge in July last year, over a hundred notices and warnings have been issued to various big and small hospitals, clinics and a few doctors for advertising. Three doctors' licences were suspended. "Two of these doctors went to the high court but lost the case. A corporate hospital claimed the council had no jurisdiction. We told them that if they gave it in writing that they would not respond to the notice as we had no jurisdiction, we would take the necessary action. They quickly fell in line. If there is a will, this menace can be stopped," says Dr Grewal.

While the Punjab and Maharashtra medical councils have regularly been taking action against hospitals and doctors for advertising, other state medical councils are yet to act despite complaints being filed. The MCI too seems confused about its own jurisdiction and regulations with no action being taken against ads running on national channels, which would not fall within the jurisdiction of any one state.

However, the MCI had issued a notice to two Delhi hospitals for an advertisement, following which the ads were withdrawn and an apology tendered to the council.

Both the MCI president and the Delhi Medical Council were silent on the issue of hospitals and doctors advertising, preferring not to answer any of the queries sent to them. This included even the most general questions like whether they have jurisdiction or not.


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