Improve quality at eye camps

The callousness of India’s health system has been laid bare yet again. Less than a month after some 60 women died at a government sterilisation camp in Chhattisgarh, scores of people – all senior citizens – have lost their vision after undergoing cataract surgery at a healthcare camp organised by a charitable organisation at a multi-speciality hospital in Punjab.

The camp was ostensibly aimed at providing free treatment to elderly and poor patients with cataract problems. But criminal negligence on the part of the organisers, the doctors and hospital authorities resulted in their losing whatever little eyesight they had.

Preliminary investigations reveal rampant disregard for medical rules. The doctor is reported to have performed 49 cataract operations in a day when medical rules limit the number to 25 and surgeries were performed at a general operation theatre rather than a special facility that is required for cataract operations. And the camp was illegal; its organisers did not get the permission of the district administration.

Medical camps provide the poor with access to surgeries and treatment they cannot otherwise afford. But these are costing patients dearly. In the rush to perform as many surgeries as possible – rewards are handed out for the highest number operated upon at a health centre or by a single doctor and so on – little attention is paid to the quality of treatment. Surgeries are performed in unhygienic operation theatres and with unsterilised instruments. Counterfeit drugs are pushed here.

The women who died at the sterilisation camps at Chhattisgarh were given antibiotics containing substances found in rat poison. Poor patients come to medical camps hoping for free treatment but end up either dead or with more complications and after contracting new diseases.

India’s cataract surgery rate, which reflects the number of cataract operations performed per million population in a year, has grown considerably in recent decades. Mass eye camps have played a central role in this achievement. However, assessing cataract service delivery in terms of quantity of operations isn’t enough.

We cannot take pride in numbers when the quality of service at some of these camps is questionable. Cataract surgery is a simple procedure these days and that makes the tragedies at the mass eye camps all the more distressing. The recurring tragedies signal a serious crisis in our health system.

It lays bare gaping holes in our health infrastructure as well as a shameful and shocking fall in medical ethics. The government must pay greater attention to addressing this crisis.

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