Since Sunday evening, Apollo Hospital in Chennai had issued a series of press releases apprising the media persons and anxious followers of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa about her health. Apollo Hospitals Group’s executive director Sangita Reddy sent out a series of tweets with regular updates on Jayalalithaa’s medical condition.

On Sunday evening, the 68-year-old politician suffered cardiac arrest at the hospital following which she was put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or EMCO. The machine mimics heart and lung function and is a sophisticated version of the heart-lung machine used by doctors to perform bypass surgeries.

Minutes after the news broke, media persons as well as party members gathered outside the hospital gates to keep tabs on the chief ministers condition. They were handed frequent press releases printed on the hospital’s letter head. She was finally declared dead late on Monday night.

Hospital administrations are in tight corners when they have patients like Jayalalithaa in their care, say doctors. “The media goes crazy and when there is a politician involved, there are calls from within the party and the opposition to know everything,” said a Mumbai doctor who has treated several Bollywood actors and politicians.

Patient confidentiality

Senior hospital administrators from Mumbai and Delhi said that no details about a patient’s health can be given to a person other than the next of kin. However, when it comes to public figures there are constant demands from the government, news organisations, the patient’s professional peers and the public at large. “Ideally even if the government demands information about a patient admitted at the hospital, I cannot share the details without the express consent of the family,” said a hospital administrator from Mumbai.

However, it is difficult to ignore these demands, said doctors. Dr Jalil Parkar, a chest physician at Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai has treated several high profile politicians including Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. During Thackeray’s illness Parkar briefed the media at regular intervals outside Lilavati Hospital in Bandra and had even announced Thackeray’s demise to the world. “All the briefings were done with the consent of the family,” said Parkar.

He added that as doctors they are obliged to not share any medical details about their patients to anyone except the next of kin. “Most times the family decides on what part of the medical diagnosis, treatment should be shared with the media,” said Parkar. Parkar is currently treating an actor whose wife decides how much needs to be divulged to the media when he is ill.

Doctors, hospital management and family members get together to decide each word that is sent out in the public, said a communication personnel from a Delhi hospital. As a doctor involved with the treatment of Thackeray pointed out that information has to be sent out only when the masses are ready to accept it.

Many take to the social media to announce their health conditions. External Affair’s Minister, Sushma Swaraj had tweeted about her kidney failure last month.

In Jayalalithaa’s case, it is unclear who exactly was deciding the content of statements being issued to the media and updates on social media. An official from the hospital said that most releases were being vetted by the government of Tamil Nadu. On Monday, Apollo Hospital’s official Twitter handle issued a message saying that Jayalalithaa’s condition continued to be critical. The second tweet said that she was on ECMO and other life support systems. Two hours later, the third tweet by the hospital’s official handle declared, “Our beloved CM remains in a grave situation.” The hospital official Twitter handle even used the hashtag #GodblessAmma with its official tweets.

Snubbing rumours

Health bulletins are vital to stop rumours, said doctors. A senior surgeon involved with the treatment of a celebrated singer said that he would receive hundreds of calls inquiring whether the person is dead. “So, we decided to send out a release to make sure that people are not calling the hospital, the family and doctors to check whether the patient is dead,” said the surgeon.

Ajay Kumar Pande, vice-president of Lilavati Hospital said that most hospitals will decide on one spokesperson to issue the updates in consultation with the family. “We would prefer that the family issues the statement which they feel is appropriate but at times they request us to give regular updates,” said Pande.

In fact, on Monday evening, local Tamil channels tweeted that Jayalalithaa had succumbed to cardiac arrest. The hospital quickly issued a press release clarifying that she continued to be on life support at the hospital. “Some TV channels are wrongly reporting that the Hon’ble Chief Minister is no more. This is totally baseless and false,” said the release.