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How hospital with fake doctors thrived in the heart of Delhi

Dec 01, 2023 04:44 AM IST

The hospital, Agarwal Medical Centre, is accused of operating on patients dangerously, resulting in at least 15 deaths.

On a balmy November afternoon, the lane in Greater Kailash’s E block is like any other in the upscale south Delhi neighbourhood — a row of three-storey homes with manicured terrace gardens, most with tall gates guarded by bored watchmen, parked SUVs, and a row of Ashoka trees. In the centre, not out of place, is a building with a sandstone facade, with a board that says “Agarwal Medical Centre”. Two smaller signs, their red fading into the background, proclaims its credentials. One says, “Super Specialty”. The other, “Government Approved”.

Officials said that the hospital was so dirty that if anybody rich ever entered, they would promptly walk out.
Officials said that the hospital was so dirty that if anybody rich ever entered, they would promptly walk out.

But inside the wooden doors, past the air conditioning units that jut out of the structure, is the dark underbelly of a hospital that was anything but. There are 10 beds, next to them are rusty old stretchers, bloodstained patient gowns, and expired bottles of blood samples that never made it to a pathology lab.

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On November 14, teams of the Delhi Police descended on the Greater Kailash lane, locked the centre, and arrested four people — the proprietor Dr Neeraj Agarwal who trained in general medicine but carried out one illegal operation after another, his wife Pooja Agarwal, and Mahender Singh, both Class 12 graduates who also conducted surgeries, and Dr Jaspreet Singh, the only man at the centre qualified to operate, who prepared fake post-operation notes instead.

In the two weeks since, the scale of the alleged medical malpractice has grown. Police are now investigating at least 17 complaints against the centre and Agarwal, of which in at least 15, people have died. As they sift through a mound of documents — complaints, post-mortem reports and post-surgery notes — a machiavellian pattern has now emerged; of a hospital that preyed on patients from lower-middle class backgrounds and operated on them dangerously, lured by a combination of cheap prices and the credibility that came from being located in a South Delhi neighbourhood.

This combination was important, for not only did it pull the correct patient profile in, it kept the influential who were likely to complain out. “Nobody rich ever went to the hospital because it clearly catered to the poor. If a patient from that strata ever did walk in, they would promptly walk out because it was so dirty,” one Delhi Police official said.

The centre was set up in 2006, and the police think that thousands of surgeries have been performed inside its premises; serviced by a nexus of middlemen who would bring poor patients to the doors, only to be operated on by people pretending to be doctors.

Setting up shop

Police investigators said the 47-year-old Agarwal finished his MBBS degree at University College of Medical Sciences associated with Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) hospital in east Delhi’s Dilshad Garden in 1999. He then reportedly pursued his MD in general medicine from a government college, the details of which they are still gathering. But what they do know is that he was a resident doctor at the Safdarjung hospital in Delhi for three years, before leaving to set up his own practice — Agarwal Medical Centre — in 2006. “During our interrogation, he said that he still consults at Safdarjung hospital,” one investigator said.

This is a claim Safdarjung Hospital, one of India’s largest central government run institutions, denies. In an email response to HT, a representative for the hospital said, “As per our records, no such Dr Neeraj Aggarwal, medicine consultant, is working in the medicine department.”

Importantly, Agarwal is trained as a general physician (GP), and should not be performing surgeries. Rajesh Deo, deputy commissioner of police (south-east), who is investigating one case said, “Since he is a GP, he is not authorised to perform surgeries. We are seeking legal opinion on whether this is medical negligence or death by negligence.”

Police said that the Greater Kailash property that houses the centre belonged to his mother in 2006, but was later transferred to his name. So while the centre ran on the ground floor, he lived on the first floor with his wife, their teenaged son, and his parents. Over the next 17 years, they acquired at least three more properties in Greater Kailash and Chittaranjan Park, worth between 80 and 100 crore. They now own two luxury cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, and from them, police have recovered 54 ATM cards and 56 bank accounts. “We are yet to ascertain the exact details of their net worth,” an officer said.

The first complaint

The first known complaint against Agarwal dates back to November 2011, when then 33-year-old Shashi Bhushan Prasad brought in his wife Rinku Prasad, four months pregnant and bleeding. They lived in Pul Prahladpur and had first gone to a clinic nearby but were referred to the Greater Kailash centre. The cost of the operation was 1,60,000 they were told, of which Bhushan paid 60,000 before the surgery. In the days after the operation, however, Rinku continued to complain of a stomach ache, and threw up constantly.

An ultrasound, to their horror, showed a part of the foetus was still inside her.

Bhushan filed a case of medical negligence at the Malviya Nagar police station, but afraid of a completely fresh examination, went back to Dr Agarwal in December 2011. He showed him the ultrasound, but instead of being contrite, Agarwal told him that a “VIP patient” was to arrive at the centre, and asked Bhushan to wear a doctor’s jacket and stand at the entrance, to give the impression of a well-staffed institution. “I resisted but he threatened that he would not operate on my wife if I don’t,” Bhushan said.

For the next hour, Bhushan stood in a lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck. He said nothing as the “VIP” arrived, paid money and left. His wife was operated on again, but despite that, has been told she can never have a baby again. “They ruptured her uterus,” Bhushan said. Delhi Police is now investigating the case.

In the first few months after the centre opened in 2006, police officers said, there were licensed surgeons that conducted the surgeries. “But Agarwal started operating himself after a little while because he had to pay more money to actual doctors. To those who only pretended, such as his employee Mahender, all he had to pay was 2,000 for each surgery,” a police officer said.

Agarwal also created a fail-safe, in case there were complaints, of which there were many. “His mother is a gynaecologist, his father an anaesthetist, and his sister is currently employed as a gynaecologist at a noted central government hospital in Delhi. He misused their letterheads. If a surgery went wrong, he would scribble a medical explanation on them. Coming from specialists, these were then used as a defence in front of the police or the Delhi Medical Council,” a senior police officer said.

Over the last 17 years, police have now compiled a list of at least 17 complaints made against Agarwal across south Delhi, some after the centre hit the headlines earlier this month. Procedure dictates that these complaints are forwarded to the Delhi Medical Council, a statutory body that regulates medical practice in the national capital, and can take action such as suspensions and even recommend the cancellation of medical licenses.

Officials of DMC said that, since 2017, action has been taken against the centre on three separate occasions. Twice his license was suspended for 30 days, and on one occasion, for 90 days. The third case is currently under appeal before the Medical Council of India.

“The Delhi Police made a representation to DMC earlier this month, sharing with us nine complaints against the centre, and asking for the license of the accused doctor to be cancelled. DMC has asked for a detailed police enquiry report based on which the police have established negligence. It is currently an ongoing investigation,” said Dr Girish Tyagi, registrar, DMC.

Accomplices inside the OT

On July 30, 40-year-old Chandra Kala from Madangir was wheeled into the operation theatre at the Agarwal Medical Centre for a gall bladder stone. There was blood on the floor, and the previous patient, a woman who had just delivered a baby, was being stitched up by Agarwal but crying out in pain. “I got scared and ran out but two women staffers forcibly took me inside, put me on the iron bed inside the OT. Pooja gave me anesthesia, and Mahender operated on me,” Kala said. Her allegations are being investigated by police, but are yet to be turned into an FIR.

Inside the OT, there was no ventilator, crucial for when surgeries go wrong, no X-ray machine, no ultrasound machine, no intensive care unit, and for a centre that delivered children, no neonatal intensive care unit.

There were very few real doctors either.

Pooja Agarwal, a Class 12 graduate from the cramped lanes of south-east Delhi’s Jaitpur, first began working at the Agarwal Medical centre as a receptionist in the beginning of September 2010. By the end of the month, the two were married. By 2012, she had started performing surgeries. “She learnt how to operate from Agarwal. Patients and their kin believed Pooja was a doctor because she was always in a white coat. Not many questions were asked because most were just grateful for the low charges,” an investigator said.

Agarwal was straight-faced and factual, tasked with convincing people to choose the centre. Pooja was the bad cop, often rude, and always ruthless. “One complainant has told us that Pooja didn’t give them their baby until a full payment was made,” an investigator said.

There was also 50-year-old Mahender, who had spent a decade as a south Delhi surgeon’s helper, and joined the centre in 2010. He, too, had no degree — his only qualification his white coat — and may have performed around “10,000 surgeries at the centre and at other small hospitals and nursing homes in Delhi”, police said.

And then there was Dr Jaspreet Singh, an MBBS and MS in general surgery from Punjab, the only person with a degree that allowed operations, who has been arrested for fashioning fake surgery notes. “He got in touch with Agarwal in 2019. He charged between 5,00,000 and 6,00,000 for each note, ostensibly to cover up cases where a problem was detected or likely to be reported,” a Delhi Police officer said.

Scouting for patients

The plan to reel in vulnerable patients was well-oiled — a clever mix of marketing and middlemen. Harmless annual wall calendars for instance that were handed to quacks in south Delhi’s Dakshinpuri and Sangam Vihar by “marketing managers” who reported to Agarwal.

“We have identified four-five such managers who would routinely approach middlemen in densely populated areas, each promised a hefty cut of 10% to 40% on each patient they referred,” said an investigator. A man identified as Zulfiqar, arrested on November 18, was one such middleman, police said.

A 2019 calendar, seen by HT, has on it a poem on motherhood, photographs of a smiling baby, a woman cradling a child, and a list of symptoms of tuberculosis in children. At the bottom is the phone number of the marketing manager, the name of the centre, the address, phone numbers and an email ID. The last line, the key, reads, “Facilities: Special discount for poor patient, abortion, delivery, ECG, all surgical operation.”

One such man who was taken in by the lure of the centre was 45-year-old Asgar Ali, who died after a gall bladder stone surgery on September 19, 2022. Soon after the operation, he began having stomach pain and trouble breathing. Agarwal gave him an injection, but his condition worsened. “He was taken to Safdarjung hospital but he was declared dead on arrival there,” said Ali’s wife, who asked that her full name not be published.

A complaint was registered, and an FIR of culpable homicide and criminal conspiracy, among other sections of the Indian Penal Code, was registered.

For the next year, station house officer Ajit Kumar and sub-inspector Shri Bhagwan of the Greater Kailash police station began an investigation that would lead to the unravelling of one of Delhi’s most ghastly cases of systematic medical negligence. Ali’s viscera report said that probable cause of death was “haemorrhagic shock as a complication of laparoscopic cholecystectomy”, or excessive bleeding.

Armed with this evidence, after surveilling the accused for a week, all four were arrested, and the next morning, the centre sealed. As one macabre story after another emerged, victims across Delhi relived memories of a centre that was meant to heal, but killed instead. On November 16, Vicky Gautam rushed to his parents, newspaper report in hand. “My sister Mamta had died due to negligence at the centre in April 2021. When I showed them the news, they cried. At least now, no other lives will be lost.”

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