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Target the rot in Indian healthcare, NOT Aamir Khan

By Dr Kunal Saha
June 07, 2012 12:57 IST
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Attacking the messenger with the threat of a defamation suit is a misguided attempt on the part of our medical leaders which is likely to further erode public trust in doctors, warns Dr Kunal Saha
A recent episode of TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by actor Aamir Khan, focused on the rot in the healthcare delivery system in India. It has created an unprecedented tumult among our healers. 

Leaders of the Indian Medical Association and other influential medical groups have erupted in vociferous protest against what they view as a blatant attack on the noble profession of medicine. The IMA leaders have claimed that the television show has portrayed an imprecise picture of medical negligence and corruption in healthcare.

While some medicos have demanded an apology from Khan for hosting the programme, other doctors have threatened a defamation lawsuit against Khan for slandering the medical community.  The reason for such an overtly exaggerated response from our healers to an ordinary television programme is bewildering indeed.
The shabby condition of Indian healthcare is common knowledge for ordinary citizens. Reports of horrific deaths and injuries from alleged "medical negligence" in hospitals and nursing homes appear almost on a daily basis in the news. There is no denying that the healthcare system in India has been riddled with negligence and corruption. Doctors involved with other Machiavellian activities that are clearly against accepted medical ethics can be found in almost every medical office and hospital.

Acceptance of financial kickback from medical laboratories for referring patients and expensive gifts from drug manufacturers for writing prescriptions of a specific drug has become an acceptable and shameless practice by many of our healers despite the presence of stringent laws against such unethical behaviour. Deep-rooted corruption has plagued even the Medical Council of India -- the highest regulatory body for the control of healthcare education and medical practice in India. 

In fact, at the present moment, MCI is being run through a stop-gap measure with an ad-hoc committee instead of a duly elected medical council, since the last MCI had to be dissolved by the government under a severely discomfiting situation after then president Dr Ketan Desai was caught red-handed by the Central Bureau of Investigation for taking bribes from a private medical college in 2010. 

Interestingly, despite the acute lack of regulatory control, private hospitals and nursing homes have not only mushroomed all over country, they are also making enormous financial profit from hapless patients -- thanks to the robust economic and population growth in modern India. Little wonder that issues pertaining to "medical negligence" have come to the limelight in recent years in India. 

Khan hosted the television show focusing on corruption and negligence in healthcare seemingly to underscore this popular theme which is of great significance in Indian society today. But the embroidered response from our doctors and IMA leaders to an otherwise unremarkable television programme on a common social issue is mind-boggling indeed.
Despite living in the United States, I had an opportunity to observe Satyamev Jayate in its entirety. While the show was produced with some crafty camera work focusing on medical negligence, there was hardly any new material which would astonish ordinary people and patients of India. 

Obviously, the show was created to focus on different aspects of malpractice by doctors in India. The programme presented stories and opinions not only from a wide array of alleged victims of medical negligence but also from many prominent personalities from the medical community in India. Even the present MCI chief, Dr KK Talwar, was interviewed. He candidly admitted the widespread presence of unethical activities and assured that the MCI was going to take useful measures to weed out corruption from Indian healthcare. 

We all hope and pray for a grand success for the MCI head. On one hand, the programme exposed the rampant corruption in the medical system highlighting the execrable episode involving disgraced ex-MCI chief Dr Ketan Desai. On the other hand, the show also underscored the noble work done by many compassionate and honest doctors. 

While focusing on medical corruption and heart-rending cases involving medical negligence, the programme also categorically showed doctors with impeccable characters who have dedicated their lives towards working for poor patients in our society.
But why are our medical leaders expressing this deep angst toward Khan for hosting a television programme on a popular topic that has gained broad acceptance in our society today? It would be foolish to imagine that there is no corruption in healthcare or that no patient in India is dying from medical negligence. 

And even if corruption and medical negligence were not real problems in Indian hospitals and nursing homes as the IMA leaders would like us to believe, they cannot possibly deny the widespread perception among the vast majority of people in our society that healthcare in India is in a shambles today because of rampant corruption and lack of accountability for our healers. 

It is difficult to fathom the exact reason behind the intense resentment of IMA leaders toward Khan, who merely produced a television show on a popular topic that may have important implication in the society. Ironically, the programme also presented some startling and irrefutable medical statistics from United Kingdom, unravelling the inherent flaws that are present in the Indian healthcare system. 

It was shown with undeniable numerical numbers that while a large number of physicians permanently lose their right to practice medicine in the UK every year on charges of professional misconduct, the MCI has not permanently cancelled the medical registration of a single medical man on any ground in the annals of Indian medicine.
There are no checks and balances for doctors in India. Despite frequent reports of medical negligence, hardly any doctor is found guilty by the medical councils in India.

Even doctors who are involved with brazen corrupt practices face no real threat for disciplinary action by their medical colleagues in the Council. It is incredible that before he was eventually nabbed for taking bribes through a sting operation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, Dr Ketan Desai had dominated MCI for nearly two decades.

Needless to say, it is impossible for a corrupt man like Dr Desai, even as the head of MCI, to run a ring of corruption with a vast medical education system in India without implicit support from other devious doctor members in the council. 

Little wonder that public trust for our healers has plummeted to an abysmally low level in recent time. Ironically, while MCI and all state medical councils in India (except the Delhi Medical Council) comprise doctor-only members, medical councils in most developed countries, including the UK and the United States, are formed with a significant number of non-doctor "lay" members from the society at large. 

Satyamev Jayate might have exposed some of the decays of the healthcare system that were already well-known in our society. Attacking the messenger with a threat for defamation suit is a misguided attempt on the part of our medical leaders which is likely to further erode public trust in doctors. 

The IMA leaders would be better advised to clean their own house by taking exemplary disciplinary measures against their errant medical colleagues to regain public trust and lift the dwindling standard of the healthcare delivery system in India. 

Dr Kunal Saha is the president of People for Better Treatment, which works for the promotion of better healthcare

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