NEW DELHI: Healthcare services were severely affected across the country on Monday as doctors wearing helmets and forming human chains went on a strike in solidarity with their protesting colleagues in West Bengal.
A large number of patients and their relatives, caught unaware of the strike, were seen waiting outside various hospitals, appealing to authorities for help.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has given the nationwide call to withdraw non-emergency healthcare services after junior doctors in West Bengal went on a strike against a brutal attack on their colleagues by the relatives of a patient who died during treatment.
In many government and private hospitals across the country, out-patient departments (OPD) remained closed and scheduled surgeries were postponed.
However, emergency services remained operational.
"Those patients or their relatives who take the law into their hands should be strictly dealt with. While we understand the pain of the doctors, is it justified that patients who travel hundreds of kilometres to get treatment at the PGI suffer like this?" asked an elderly patient visiting the OPD at the PGIMER in Chandigarh.
Outside a government hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, a patient said, "We left our homes at 3 am and do not know if the doctors will attend to us."
The protesting doctors are demanding comprehensive central legislation to check violence against doctors and other medical professionals at hospitals.
They also urged the West Bengal governments to fulfil the demands of the striking doctors and resolve the matter amicably at the earliest.
In the national capital, doctors at government and a few private hospitals boycotted work and staged protests.
Doctors at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), who had earlier decided not to strike, too joined the stir after a doctor was allegedly manhandled by a patient's attendants.
Members of several resident doctors associations also took out marches on their campuses to lodge protest.
Many patients were aware of the stir on Monday which comes after scores of doctors in Delhi had boycotted work and held demonstrations on Friday and Saturday, but many still turned up at the facilities only to be turned away or wait for long hours.
More than 40,000 doctors in Maharashtra boycotted work, according to an IMA official.
In Goa too, medicos observed the strike and took out a 'silent protest march' to condemn the attack on some of their colleagues in West Bengal.
Similar reports came in from other states, including Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
In Kerala, long queues near OPDs were seen in several government hospitals in the early hours of the day.
Some patients said they didn't know of the strike and have been waiting for hours.
A woman in the state capital said she had come with her relative who had breathing problems early this morning and no doctors had attended to her till 10 am.
The strike had a telling effect on medical services as people struggled to get treatment in private hospitals in Karnataka.
However, government hospitals remained open following a circular by the Commissioner of Health and Family Welfare and there was a huge rush of patients at these facilities since morning.
A middle-aged man, who accompanied his ailing wife to a hospital in Hisar, Haryana, said, "Why should patients have to suffer like this? I have been waiting here for hours, but no one is giving any proper response. The central government must intervene in the matter as patients across the country should not be made to suffer."
In Tamil Nadu, doctors, including postgraduate students, formed human chains in front of state-run medical college and hospitals in Chennai.
Wearing black badges and sporting helmets, they held placards seeking protection.
Similar protests were also held in government hospitals in other parts of Tamil Nadu.
The IMA had launched a four-day nationwide protest from Friday over the Kolkata incident and wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah demanding enactment of a central law to check violence against healthcare workers.
A delegation of IMA, Resident Doctors Association of AIIMS, Safdarjung Hospital, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, United Resident and Doctors Association of India (URDA) and Federation of Resident Doctors Association (FORDA) also met Union Health Minister over the last three days and submitted representation to him seeking a central law.
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Saturday asked states to consider enacting specific legislation for protecting doctors and medical professionals from any form of violence.
The apex medical body, IMA, however, demanded a comprehensive central law in dealing with violence on doctors and healthcare staff, and in hospitals.
Security measures and the determinants leading to violence should also be addressed, it said in a statement.
Exemplary punishment for perpetrators of violence should be a component of the central law and suitable amendments should be brought in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), the IMA said.
The protesting doctors in West Bengal held a meeting with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to resolve the impasse Monday afternoon.
The doctors in West Bengal have been on a strike since June 11 after two of their colleagues were attacked and seriously injured allegedly by relatives of a patient who died at the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata.