Oxygen scarcity: When hospitals go away sufferers gasping

Pushpa Girimaji

My wife, who was admitted to a private hospital in Delhi for the treatment of Covid-19, died on account of shortage of oxygen. What makes me so angry is that the hospital did not inform me about the shortage. If they had, I would have got a cylinder. She was improving and I was looking forward to having her home when I was suddenly told one morning that she had died. Later, I came to know that this happened on account of oxygen shortage. Can I seek compensation from the hospital?

I am really sorry to hear about your wife’s untimely death in these tragic circumstances. The doctors, nurses and other health workers are really working hard to save lives. Unfortunately, lack of oxygen supply has led to the death of a large number of people in different hospitals across the country.

It is truly shocking that neither the Central government nor the states nor the hospitals prepared for the second wave, leading to untold suffering, with kin of patients running from pillar to post for a hospital bed or oxygen or life-saving medicines. It is even more horrifying that some of the private hospitals that charge exorbitant amounts from patients had neither invested in their own oxygen plants, nor made arrangements for additional supplies to meet the steep demand during the second wave. They well know that medical oxygen comes from far-off places and cannot be secured at short notice.

The Delhi High Court has now directed all hospitals, existing and new ones, to set up their own oxygen plants. The Bombay High Court has also issued similar directions. Hopefully, at least in the third wave, we will not have patients gasping for breath in the absence of medical oxygen.

I must also mention that the Supreme Court and the Delhi HC have asked the Centre and the states to treat the public interest litigations seeking compensation to the victims of oxygen shortage in hospitals as a ‘representation’ and come up with a policy for grant of compensation to the families of such victims.

Coming specifically to your question, yes, you can file a complaint against the hospital, asking for compensation for damages. However, in order to do that, you have to collect the most crucial evidence that your wife died on account of depletion in oxygen supply at the hospital. Will they tell the truth? A committee constituted by the Delhi Government (at the behest of the court) to assess the number of oxygen shortage-related deaths reported, following checks in one of the hospitals, that there was no mention of ‘shortage of oxygen’ in the case files and that ‘respiratory failure’ was specified as the cause of death.

Since respiratory failure can occur on account of oxygen level in the blood going too low, it may well be a pointer to the hospital not providing oxygen to the patient. So you will have to collect all the papers pertaining to her treatment and examine them. You may even be required to do your own investigation to ascertain the correct cause of death. Some of the hospitals, while seeking the court’s intervention in securing oxygen, had themselves spoken about deaths caused on account of such shortage. You will have to check all such evidence.

It might be better for you to join others who have lost their family members in similar circumstances. Collectively, you can gather more information and seek expert opinion to buttress your arguments. In your case, the hospital’s negligence is compounded by their failure to inform you well in advance about the oxygen shortage. That amounts to negligence. But to make that point, you will have to first prove the cause of your wife’s death.

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