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27 Mar, 2009 07:14

Killed… by doctors

Thousands of Russians die as a result of medical errors each year, but those responsible for giving poor treatment continue practicing because there is no law to punish them.

Three-year-old Artyom didn’t live to see his fourth birthday. Two years ago, in November, he was taken to the hospital with breathing problems and died shortly after in the emergency unit.

His mother, Elena Shakhramanyan, blames the doctors for negligence. She is a professional nurse and says Artyom didn’t get the vital treatment he needed.

“I wasn’t allowed into the emergency room. Artyom needed an airway to breathe, and I kept calling the hospital and asking if they did it. They said no. Then as I called again the doctor told me ”What can I say, he’s dead.“ I think my son simply suffocated,” Elena recalls.

The hospital claims Artyuom died of an infection. The paperwork provided didn’t convince Elena, but local prosecutors refuse to investigate.

Elena is determined to find out what really happened and she’s not alone in trying to uncover the truth. She is convinced that her son was pushed to his death by doctors.

In another similar case, a widow called Ludmila composed a list of medical errors which, according to her, killed her husband.

Two years ago, the strong and healthy man went to the hospital with flu and died after four operations. The hospital admitted the treatment was wrong, and a criminal case was opened. But as it drags on, the doctors who allegedly made the mistakes continue to work at the clinic.

Ludmila describes the conditions under which her husband died:

“My husband screamed with pain, but no doctors came. His medical history shows he didn’t always receive the prescribed medication. It looks like they simply waited for him to die. His case was passed from one doctor to another – in all, 20 people dealt with it! I saw he was getting worse but they kept telling me he was fine.”

The term “medical error” doesn’t exist in Russia’s criminal code despite firmly existing in reality.

Although there are no official figures, according to one NGO campaigning for the rights of patients, 50,000 Russians die every year as a result of medical errors. This figure is almost twice the number of people killed in road accidents in 2008.

Yet the League for the Protection of Patients’ Rights says it’s a tough battle to investigate and punish those responsible.

Dmitry Aivazyan, a medical lawyer from the League for the protection of patients’ rights, says “Medical documents are easily falsified. Doctors can rewrite them any way they want. Also, nurses and doctors will never testify against their colleagues and other patients are often too scared.”

Russia has no insurance system against medical errors. A draft law has been prepared but it has yet to come into force.

“If mistakes are caused by negligence, the doctor must stop practicing. But if errors are caused by incompetence or lack of experience, a patient has to get financial compensation paid by the state, professional associations or insurance companies. We very much need such a law,” explains Tatyana Yakovleva, a member of the state Duma.

But both Elena and Ludmila say they don’t want the money. They want to make sure the doctors they hold responsible never work again to repeat the mistakes which have cost them so dearly.