Psychiatrists in Punjab allege that for the past six days, police officials in various districts have been pressuring them to reveal contact details of their patients – addicts seeking medical treatment – who would then be made to reveal the identities of drug peddlers.
For mental health professionals, revealing personal details or any information about their patients to a third party would be in clear violation of the confidentiality agreement they have with patients. It would also violate the official code of medical ethics published by the Medical Council of India for all registered doctors to follow. The code of ethics states that medical practitioners cannot disclose secrets of a patient that have been learnt in the exercise of their profession.
Despite being informed of these ethical guidelines, the Punjab police have been trying to get information about addicts for almost a week, claim psychiatrists who Scroll.in spoke to.
“Through our psychiatrists’ network, I have been able to confirm that this is happening in at least four districts,” said a Chandigarh-based mental health practitioner on condition of anonymity. Doctors in both private and state-run hospitals and de-addiction centres have been approached by the police, he said. “Some doctors have tried to explain that this method is unacceptable, some have resisted and tried to buy time. But if this continues it could lead to a lot of harassment and arm-twisting of doctors.”
The official version
When Scroll contacted the headquarters of the Punjab police as well as the state government’s health department, lower-ranked officials in both offices acknowledged the new tactic of tracking down drug peddlers through psychiatrists and their patients.
“Yes, that drive has been started, but you will have to speak to the seniors for more information,” said an official at the police’s narcotics control bureau. A senior official, however, denied approaching psychiatrists.
“Whenever we come across addicts, we question them about the source of the drugs they used, but we are not reaching addicts through doctors,” said Bhupinder Singh, the additional inspector general at the narcotics control bureau headquartered in Ludhiana.
Senior bureaucrats at the health department could not be reached despite several attempts.
Pressure and intimidation
Psychiatrists reaching out to journalists and activists on Friday, however, had a completely different story to tell.
“This week, I have had police officials enter my clinic and demand information about my patients in an intimidating manner – and this has also happened to several other psychiatrists I know,” said Dr Singh (name changed), who did not wish to reveal his identity or the name of the city he works in. “So far they have not entered my room in the presence of a patient, but imagine a police officer waiting outside your door for three hours, pressuring you to give out confidential information that would breach the unwritten contract between doctor and patient.”
Dr Singh said that many psychiatrists are willing to give the police the total number of drug addiction patients they have been treating, but not addresses and phone numbers of individual patients, which is what the police allegedly want.
“The police seem to think that we should give them this information because drug addicts are criminals,” he said. “My fear is that doctors in government hospitals might end up giving out information because they are in a more vulnerable position.”
Other medical professionals dismissed the idea that the police could justify their means just because drug abuse is a criminal offence. “Drug addiction is not just a ‘criminal’ act. There are many scenarios where ethics clash with superfluous legality,” said Dr Sanjay Nagral, a Mumbai-based surgeon and publisher of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics. “It is the duty of the doctor to treat the patient and protect the patient’s privacy and confidentiality.”
Some doctors believe the new police tactic was born out of the public spat between Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and union Social Empowerment Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot on June 26 in Hoshiarpur. Gehlot – a BJP leader – was in the district to inaugurate a new drug rehabilitation centre on the occasion of International Anti-drug Day.
During his speech, Gehlot claimed that Punjab had the highest number of drug addicts in India, which was seen as a jibe against Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal. Badal countered Gehlot’s claims in his own speech by claiming that the state’s drug addiction problem was under control and that attempts were being made to tarnish Punjab’s image.
“That incident was all over the news and it was embarrassing for the chief minister – so this is most likely the reason why the government has asked the police to crack down on drug use urgently,” said the Chandigarh-based doctor. “I can’t think of any other reason why the police is trying to get information from psychiatrists, who have ready data on addicts.”
‘This could push people to suicide’
The method, however, is questionable for various reasons, say mental health professionals.
“For one, breaching confidentiality would violate our code of ethics. If the patient files a court case, he would almost definitely win,” said Dr Singh. Doctors could also get in trouble with the Medical Council of India and lose their licenses as practitioners.
“But the basic point is that this is intrusive,” said Singh. “Many patients don’t tell their families that they are seeing a psychiatrist. They are weak and vulnerable, and if their parents or spouses or children find out because of the police, some might end up committing suicide.”
Doctors are also afraid that the police drive might scare addicts off treatment and seeking help at de-addiction centres, which would inevitably push them back into drug abuse.
A group of psychiatrists from across the state have now drafted a letter to be sent to the state home minister, appealing for an end to the unethical police investigation.