Protect the healers who protect our health

Protect the healers who protect our health

If a country’s health has to be preserved, the welfare of its healthcare providers has to be protected

Medical students and resident doctors hold placards and raise slogans during a protest demanding restructuring of the academic fees, payment of Covid-risk allowance and timely payment of stipend to postgraduates and interns, at Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru, Tuesday, November 30, 2021. Credit: PTI Photo

“I swear before my gods, my ancestors, my teachers, my fellow healers and by all the arts and knowledge I was privileged to learn, that I will soothe the pain of anyone who needs my art. Never will I betray them or risk their wellbeing to satisfy my vanity…”

This is the sacred pledge repeated by generations of aspiring doctors as they begin their gallant profession of healing. The Hippocratic oath which has been handed down the centuries is a promise that binds the medical fraternity to a code of conduct that cannot be betrayed. This code binds every physician and surgeon to perform his/her professional duties with sincerity and honesty. It has survived for centuries and places an enormous responsibility on doctors to put the patient above their own ego while fulfilling their obligations.

I am sure we have all come across such professionals in the course of a lifetime. Doctors who sacrificed their own needs to be at the bedside of a dying patient. Or subdued their own ego by confessing it is beyond their skill to treat such and such a disease. The latter is much more difficult and requires courage to admit. Yet, there have been such amazing doctors whose skill, honesty and integrity were the hallmark of their careers, whether they worked in hospitals or private clinics. In 2019, their final test arrived when the pandemic struck.   

Suddenly, hospitals turned into battlegrounds and witnessed gruesome scenes of doctors being attacked viciously when patients succumbed to the deadly virus. Many doctors and hospitals even sought police protection. The reason may not be far to seek. Public perception of a medical practitioner is blindly exaggerated. A doctor must be efficient and accommodating. He must be accessible to all patients at all times. He must be available at all hours of day and night. He must be patient. He must be kind. He must be a fount of knowledge in every specialty. And also play God in a critical case to save the patient at all costs. A tall order that would scare the most eminent of doctors.

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At the same time, doctors need to understand that a sick person looks forward to a kind word, a gentle touch rather than a cold examination or a recommendation for various tests. Since time means money to every professional, the medical fraternity is no exception to this dependence on tests by machines rather than a conversation with a patient that can reveal much more than an oximeter or an ECG. Covid-19 has caused additional obstacles to a warm relationship between doctor and patient with both wearing masks, PPEs and maintaining distance, with little or no physical contact.

Covid-19 was also cruel and unforgiving to its victims. Separated from their families and caregivers, its victims were segregated even in hospitals, where they were enclosed in separate wards or quarantined in separate rooms with little or no human contact. The result was that both patients and their families who were not allowed to see them became frantic with worry and apprehension. In these unfriendly conditions, the caregivers comprising doctors and nurses became soft targets for public wrath.

Medical associations are now demanding greater security for their members through legislative measures. In stressful times like an epidemic or pandemic, doctors and nurses are the frontline workers. They need to be given protection against public outrage or assault.

At the same time, doctors too need to realise that theirs is a profession unlike anything else as it concerns the very existence of another human being. One cannot deny that medical negligence and errors in diagnosis have plagued patients, not only in government hospitals but in the best of private nursing homes.

One can forgive a doctor for making a mistake in diagnosis and seek a second opinion. Doctors, too, are human and prone to errors in judgement. This is more so in government hospitals and primary health care clinics where the workload is heavy in brutal conditions. That is the reason why a diagnosis is whetted by a second doctor before the treatment begins, especially if surgery is involved.

But, medical negligence on the part of a doctor is unpardonable, especially if it results in the loss of limbs or other faculties. Sadly, the patient has no recourse to remedies or legal action, both of which are long-drawn battles with no promise of relief at the end of it all.

If the pandemic has come to stay, the government needs to protect the medical fraternity against the risk of infection, too. Their working conditions have to be improved in state hospitals. Their security must be guarded, their health needs provided. They must also be equipped with at least basic amenities to be able to fulfil their responsibilities in remote areas and unfriendly living conditions. If a country’s health has to be preserved, the welfare of its healthcare providers has to be protected.