Don’t make doctors the fall guy for India’s poor healthcare

June 23, 2019, 2:00 AM IST Chetan Bhagat in The Underage Optimist | India | TOI

When I was in school, many of my friends prepared for entrance exams. For science students back then, and perhaps even now, medicine and engineering were the most popular options. I chose engineering. Today, when I see the state of doctors in my country, I feel thankful I didn’t choose to become one.

In India, we expect doctors to be all this: they should be brilliant, be willing to study for decades, be willing to work in adverse conditions, including far-flung rural areas, feel guilty about making money, take responsibility for anything going wrong, be demonised as greedy and also get beaten up by an angry mob from time to time. Wow, some way to treat people who save our lives, isn’t it?

Ironically, all this is happening at a time when Indian nationalism is running at an all time high, when movies and television programmes are celebrating our soldiers. Well, soldiers deserve respect as they save our lives, but they only do so in times of conflict. Doctors save lives everyday. So why are we beating them up? Why are we making them feel terrible when theirs is actually one of the noblest professions known to man?

There are several reasons for this. One, we need a scapegoat for what is ultimately a poor healthcare system in our country. No matter how jingoistic we get, the fact is we are a third-world country that makes very little money compared to the developed world. Until that changes, we cannot change this reality — for a billion plus people, we don’t have adequate resources for a good healthcare system. Running hospitals, doing tests, treatments, surgeries and medicines cost money; getting quality in all these aspects is expensive; and, most importantly, the people who are treating you need to be of a certain calibre.

This last point means we have to attract the best talent into the profession. It means we have to value this excellence, incentivise it properly and not mix politics into it. However, we are doing exactly the opposite. So, if someone makes the mistake of becoming a doctor in India, we expect them to become a saviour of the world. They should take all the downside, get paid a lot less than people of similar intelligence do in other fields and not even feel safe. If they call it unfair, we morally guilt them and ask them why they became a doctor in the first place. Is it a surprise that our best doctors are running abroad, or even worse, not even becoming doctors in the first place at all?

There is a tendency in India. If something is good, mix some kind of politics in it and destroy it. After all, politics is the will of the people, right? So, if we have good schools, we impose a million regulations on them. If we have a good metro, make its operations unviable by making tickets free for women. In this, we don’t realise a simple fact. If you make school regulations onerous or metros unviable, people will not open schools and more metros will not be made. Similarly, if we screw the doctors, we are simply discouraging the best people from joining the profession.

But doctors are supposed to be selfless, right? They should just suffer and treat people for twenty hours a day and not make money, right? Well, the answer is no. Doctors are doing good for society, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it for profit or ignore your needs and comfort. Yes, there are rare people in this world who do good for society and don’t have any personal gain out of it. Anna Hazare and Mother Teresa, for instance. But such people are rare.

There is a second degree of do-gooders in society. The ones that help society but also make money. They are not as noble as Anna Hazare and Mother Teresa. But neither are you nor I. Most of us want to do good for society, but also have a good life. And there is nothing wrong in that. In fact, such people are much needed. An entrepreneur who makes money, but also gives jobs and pays taxes is doing good for society; whether he roams in a luxury car earned from his profits is irrelevant. A doctor who treats people, but wants a decent life for himself is also really good for society. This Indian ethos of ‘good people are necessarily poor or have no needs of their own’ simply has to go. It only leads to hypocrisy, unscrupulousness, unsustainable expectations, and in the case of doctors, a weird hostility towards them.

Please understand. You need the smartest and best people to be doctors. A woefully poor healthcare system also means Indian doctors are under tremendous pressure. Hence, show some respect and compassion for people who quite literally, give you life. Stand with Indian doctors. Keep the people who keep us safe, safe.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat is a bestselling author and a popular newspaper columnist.

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