I have been in medical school for four years now. Before this month, I’d heard of a few cases of doctors getting beat up by patients’ relatives. It’s one of the hazards of working in a government hospital in India. Unfortunately, medical students are not properly taught how to break bad news to patients and their relatives; some doctors tend to be quite rude and insensitive. We should remember that while sickness and death are part of our job, it is a catastrophic event for the patient’s family. Even when someone dies of a longstanding illness, the doctor must provide support and space for the relatives to mourn.
There is a flip side to this, of course. In a government hospital, there is a near constant system breakdown. The main job of an intern is to hoard as many syringes, vials, catheters and IV sets as they can away from other interns so that they can provide these to their own patients. There is never enough infrastructure to accommodate the patient load, and doctors are always trying to do the best with what they have. Patients are often accompanied by ten or more relatives, each one more aggressive than the other. If one of them has even the slightest connection to a local political goon, you’re done for. They’ll be loud, rowdy and demanding. Doctors tend to divide resources, when they are limited, according to which patient needs them most, not which patient is well-connected. This, obviously, causes some angst and friction.
Residents, I think, have the worst of the lot. They have the longest hours and the most direct accountability to the patients. They’re poorly compensated and insulted both by the patients and by their higher ups. Most residents I meet day to day can seldom tell when or what they ate last. It’s a terrible way to spend your twenties; most of their friends in other professions are already well-settled, rich and independent. Residents, however, see their residency as paying their dues and are resigned to having stability only in their mid-thirties.
Then, something like this happens.
This was over a week ago, and the doctor is still in the ICU. Only watch the video accompanying the article if you have the stomach for it. After that incident, the Maharashtra Associaton of Resident Doctors (MARD) called for a strike. The High Court deemed the strike illegal, and it was called off. In the past week, there have been seven instances of doctors getting manhandled by patients’ relatives. Residents have had enough. 60 percent of the state’s residents are on casual leave till they feel safe to work again. I have to remind you, these are struggling people who need the money they get when they work, and yet they are choosing not to. Today, the High Court called the mass bunk unethical, saying that “It is a shame on the profession; if doctors go on strike like factory men, then they are unfit to be doctors…what doctors will do, if people thrash them in their rooms” (sic). Basic and emergency services in most hospitals are now being conducted by interns and consultants. Candle marches occur every day. My Facebook feed is filled with post after post asking laymen to understand why residents want better security. But all this is happening within the medical fraternity bubble. I don’t see this having any lasting effects apart from losing, even more, the goodwill that doctors have in society.
Most people I know, and me, have taken up this profession because we want to serve and we want to heal. Please let us do that without having to fear for our lives and health.
UPDATE (23 March 01:02 IST): The Maharashtra government has threatened residents with the loss of 6 months salary if they continue the strike. The residents are not backing down. The Indian Medical Association has called for a strike of 40,000 doctors until the demands are met. Only emergency services will be functional. The interns in my college have gone on strike as well for support. God help us all.