Under the wise and farsighted leadership of our Monarchs, Bhutanese are extremely fortunate to enjoy complete free medical services including medicines and referrals. This does not mean medical service providers operate with impunity because medical services are free. Any lapses on the part of service providers, not just individuals but institutions must be recognized, and accountability fixed without undue delay.

While huge praise is there for our medical team and health professionals in dealing with this pandemic, any lapses which could have been prevented if relevant institutions, officials, or professionals exercised due diligence must not be brushed under the carpet.  In 2018, 11 infants lost their lives allegedly due to a lack of proper management of the Neonatal Intensive Unit in JDWNRH and accountability died with infants. Kuensel on 29 September 2021 reported that a “47-year-old mentally challenged woman with underlying health conditions died in a quarantine facility in Lhamoizingkha, Dagana where death was possibly due to deficiency in health service.”  There were no reports of accountability. On 28 January 2022, another 34-year-old woman with an underlying health condition lost her life pointing to negligence as the cause of the death. Even after months, Bhutan Medical and Health Council is still having no reports on the truth of her death. This reflects the hesitancy on part of regulators to fix the accountability. 

The BMHC might justify the delay by applying their rules which allow one year to resolve the issues.  However, the allegations, in this case, were quite straightforward and do not necessarily require too many medical tests and analysis and long duration.  One of the major issues was whether the ambulance was reached on time and whether relevant officials responded to the emergency call. Any delay in finding the truth may significantly cost public confidence in the health system. For example, Royal Bhutan Police was able to fix the accountability on their officials in less than a month after the stabbing case in the Supreme Court. Justice delayed is justice denied. 

Bhutan is not only a country with free medical services. Denmark and New Zealand also provide similar services. Yet they are rated one of the best health service providers in the world. His Majesty said, “Quality! Healthcare is very important for every person, and we cannot fail in our endeavour to continuously improve the quality of our healthcare services. Of all our institutions, our education and healthcare must be the most dynamic, responsive, and flexible.” 

The possible relaxation among our leaders in the health system could be because there are hardly any regulations to fix accountability in such cases. The only law that currently can be used is “The Medical and Health Council Act 2002.” This law only regulates the medical professionals, but many cases reported including the recent one were possibly closer to poor management rather than individual negligence of medical professionals because she never reached the hospital. 

The Consumer Protection Act is still short of the inclusion of medical services as one of the services. Bhutan still does not have patient’s rights laws or policies, nor an ombudsman to protect the patients.  Thus, the current medical laws need immediate review to fix the accountability not just on individual doctors or medical professionals but also on leaders who lead these medical institutions, including hospitals and health facilities. Accountability must not die with the death of patients. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.