The National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha in December, 2017. It was examined by the Standing Committee on Health, which submitted its report during Budget Session 2018. The Bill seeks to regulate medical education and practice in India. In this post, we analyse the Bill in its current form.
How is medical education and practice regulated currently?
The Medical Council of India (MCI) is responsible for regulating medical education and practice. Over the years, there have been several issues with the functioning of the MCI with respect to its regulatory role, composition, allegations of corruption, and lack of accountability. For example, MCI is an elected body where its members are elected by medical practitioners themselves, i.e. the regulator is elected by the regulated. In light of such issues, experts recommended nomination based constitution of the MCI instead of election, and separating the regulation of medical education and medical practice. They suggested that legislative changes should be brought in to overhaul the functioning of the MCI.
To meet this objective, the Bill repeals the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and dissolves the current Medical Council of India (MCI) which regulates medical education and practice.
Who will be a part of the NMC?
The NMC will consist of 25 members, of which at least 17 (68%) will be medical practitioners. The Standing Committee has noted that the current MCI is non-diverse and consists mostly of doctors who look out for their own self-interest over larger public interest. In order to reduce the monopoly of doctors, it recommended that the MCI should include diverse stakeholders such as public health experts, social scientists, and health economists. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council (GMC) responsible for regulating medical education and practice consists of 12 medical practitioners and 12 lay members (such as community health members, and administrators from the local government).
How will the issues of medical misconduct be addressed?
The State Medical Council will receive complaints relating to professional or ethical misconduct against a registered doctor. If the doctor is aggrieved by the decision of the State Medical Council, he may appeal to the Ethics and Medical Registration Board, and further before the NMC. Appeals against the decision of the NMC will lie before the central government. It is unclear why the central government is an appellate authority with regard to such matters.
It may be argued that disputes related to ethics and misconduct in medical practice may require judicial expertise. For example, in the UK, the GMC receives complaints with regard to ethical misconduct and is required to do an initial documentary investigation. It then forwards the complaint to a Tribunal, which is a judicial body independent of the GMC. The adjudication and final disciplinary action is decided by the Tribunal.
What will the NMC’s role be in fee regulation of private medical colleges?
In India, the Supreme Court has held that private providers of education have to operate as charitable and not for profit institutions. Despite this, many private education institutions continue to charge exorbitant fees which makes medical education unaffordable and inaccessible to meritorious students. Currently, for private unaided medical colleges, the fee structure is decided by a committee set up by state governments under the chairmanship of a retired High Court judge. The Bill allows the NMC to frame guidelines for determination of fees for up to 40% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities. The question is whether the NMC as a regulator should regulate fees charged by private medical colleges.
A NITI Aayog Committee (2016) was of the opinion that a fee cap would discourage the entry of private colleges, therefore, limiting the expansion of medical education. It also observed that it is difficult to enforce such a fee cap and could lead medical colleges to continue charging high fees under other pretexts.
Note that the Parliamentary Standing Committee (2018) which examined the Bill has recommended continuing the current system of fee structures being decided by the Committee under the chairmanship of a retired High Court judge. However, for those private medical colleges and deemed universities, unregulated under the existing mechanism, fee must be regulated for at least 50% of the seats. The Union Cabinet has approved an Amendment to increase the regulation of fees to 50% of seats.
How will doctors become eligible to practice?
The Bill introduces a National Licentiate Examination for students graduating from medical institutions in order to obtain a licence to practice as a medical professional.
However, the NMC may permit a medical practitioner to perform surgery or practice medicine without qualifying the National Licentiate Examination, in such circumstances and for such period as may be specified by regulations. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has clarified that this exemption is not meant to allow doctors failing the National Licentiate Examination to practice but is intended to allow medical professionals like nurse practitioners and dentists to practice. It is unclear from the Bill that the term ‘medical practitioner’ includes medical professionals (like nurses) other than MBBS doctors.
Further, the Bill does not specify the validity period of this licence to practice. In other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, a licence to practice needs to be periodically renewed. For example, in the UK the licence has to be renewed every five years, and in Australia it has to renewed annually.
What are the issues around the bridge course for AYUSH practitioners to prescribe modern medicine?
The debate around AYUSH practitioners prescribing modern medicine
There is a provision in the Bill which states that there may be a bridge course which AYUSH practitioners (practicing Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) can undertake in order to prescribe certain kinds of modern medicine. There are differing views on whether AYUSH practitioners should prescribe modern medicines.
Over the years, various committees have recommended a functional integration among various systems of medicine i.e. Ayurveda, modern medicine, and others. On the other hand, experts state that the bridge course may promote the positioning of AYUSH practitioners as stand-ins for allopathic doctors owing to the shortage of doctors across the country. This in turn may affect the development of AYUSH systems of medicine as independent systems of medicine.
Moreover, AYUSH doctors do not have to go through any licentiate examination to be registered by the NMC, unlike the other doctors. Recently, the Union Cabinet has approved an Amendment to remove the provision of the bridge course.
Status of other kinds of medical personnel
As of January 2018, the doctor to population ratio in India was 1:1655 compared to the World Health Organisation standard of 1:1000. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated that the introduction of the bridge course for AYUSH practitioners under the Bill will help fill in the gaps of availability of medical professionals.
If the purpose of the bridge course is to address shortage of medical professionals, it is unclear why the option to take the bridge course does not apply to other cadres of allopathic medical professionals such as nurses, and dentists. There are other countries where medical professionals other than doctors are allowed to prescribe allopathic medicine. For example, Nurse Practitioners in the USA provide a full range of primary, acute, and specialty health care services, including ordering and performing diagnostic tests, and prescribing medications. For this purpose, Nurse Practitioners must complete a master’s or doctoral degree program, advanced clinical training, and obtain a national certification.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.