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Doctors are life-savers, professionals, not magicians and certainly not slaves

Doctors are professionals who are trained to do a job. While a doctor's negligence can lead to someone's life being snuffed away, blaming a doctor for trying to save an ailing old man's life but failing, leads one nowhere.

They are life-savers. Professionals who spend decades harnessing their talent. They often go beyond the call of their duty to ensure they live up to the oath they have taken:

“I swear to fulfil, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow. I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug. I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery. I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems if I am to care adequately for the sick. I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm. If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection, thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help”. 

They promise to help us to the best of their ability. While that might sound like a simple statement for most, when life and death hang in the balance, the ‘best of their ability’ statement takes prominence.

Recently, we saw a Muslim mob attack doctors mercilessly in West Bengal because an 85-year-old man could not be treated and died of natural causes. Doctors throughout the country went on strikes and demanded that they are treated with respect and dignity. They demanded that they are kept safe.

Then, after the wrath of Encephalitis in Bihar, we saw journalists heckle and give the third-degree to government hospital doctors who visibly looked agitated and overworked.

While the human reaction might be to first question the doctors, the epidemic of attacks on doctors and the culture of heckling doctors should raise alarm bells. Doctors are humans, like us, They too feel pain and hurt, just like us. However, their responsibilities are far greater. And they also constantly face the risk of being blamed, attacked and even demonised for doing their job.

Recently, a doctor in the UK, Dr, Keith Wolverson, was on the verge of losing his job and a facing a halt in his long career because he had asked a Muslim woman to remove her niqab so he could hear her better. The woman’s husband had complained against the doctor claiming racial discrimination.

The case of young Paribaha Mukherjee having his skull cracked by a mob of over 200 men arriving in trucks to launch a vicious attack on the NRS hospital is not a one-off incident. It was just the tipping point. West Bengal’s doctors took to streets because it was their only way of saying “enough is enough”. The state government was simply not listening. Dr Binayak Sinha, a Kolkata-based senior doctor has recently written on The Economic Times that in the last two years, there have been over 175 incidents of violent attacks on doctors and healthcare staffers in Bengal alone.

Earlier this month, a man named Rafiq Rasheed came with a knife to Dr Ramkrishna Verma’s clinic in Indore and, after learning of his absence, attacked the doctor’s wife and son. The woman died, the son was critically injured. Rasheed was apparently unhappy that Dr Verma’s treatment for his skin disorder was not working.

One wonders if this culture of heckling and attacking stems from the general attitude that has been prevalent in society. Often we hear wails of how doctors overcharge or how, when one goes to a surgeon, one does not come out with a simple prescription for medication, but almost always, the advice for surgery, even when not required. One hears several people complain of how doctors are ordering needless tests just to ensure their billables increase.

Or how, doctors often, under the pressure of big Pharma companies prescribe expensive drugs when the generic ones would do the job just fine.

We have heard uncles and aunties sit around their living room and talk about how lawyers and doctors should be kept far away or how a 90-year-old aunt died because of the doctor’s negligence. In the same breath, you would hear another person chime in and accuse doctors of stacking up the bill by keeping the patient hooked on to life support.

Doctors, damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

This is not to say devious doctors who only know the scent of money do not exist. But when the society at large sees doctors either as Gods or the Devil, such attacks on doctors and such shameless heckling is bound to continue.

We have often seen doctors ‘work miracles’. We have seen doctors travel to remote parts of the world, endangering their own lives to ensure that the sick and the needy are taken care of. We have seen doctors go above and beyond the call of duty. As a general group, doctors by and large do right by their patients.

But it is with an awareness that one would realise that some tests might appear necessary to a doctor, while it might seem needless to the initiated-by-google-doctor-who-doubles-up-as-a-patient. That perhaps that extra MRI was needed. Or that extra blood test was vital to rule out the suspicion of some disease that the doctor did not think fit to disclose beforehand.

Doctors can work miracles, sometimes, but they are not miracle workers. Doctors serve and cure, but they cannot trump God himself. Doctors try their best to save lives with limited resources that governments and bureaucrats may provide, but they don’t deserve to be heckled just because the media does not have the courage to ask real questions to the ones who wield power.

Doctors work under extremely stressful environments and are susceptible to burnouts. A study from rural British Columbia reported that 80% of physicians suffered from moderate to severe Emotional Exhaustion, 61% suffered from moderate to severe Depersonalisation, and 44% had moderate to low feelings of Personal Accomplishment.

A more recent study of US physicians found 46% of the respondents had at least one symptom of burnout. European General Practice Research Network Burnout Study Group, on the other hand, found that, while 12% of participants suffered from burnout in all three dimensions, 43% scored high for Emotional Exhaustion, 35% for Depersonalisation, and 32% for low Personal Accomplishment. In the United Kingdom, approximately one-third of the physicians had features of burnout, which are comparable to studies from Arab countries like Yemen, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

The burnout percentage among Indian doctors are exceptionally high too. The study’s author Dr Gharpure said, “Some of my colleagues used to work for 34 hours at a stretch. It is not surprising that we hear instances of doctors snapping at patients they are stretched.”

Medicine is a profession that clearly needs the professional to go above and beyond the average physical and emotional capacity. While the job itself, where they have an individual’s life and death in their hands, is stressful the added stress of being beaten up and heckled at the first sign of trouble is the last thing they need, not only for their own sanity but also so they can continue to be in the condition to adequately treat their patients.

Doctors are caregivers. Lifesavers and sometimes, they are miracle workers. They are not Gods and they are certainly not slaves. They are professionals who are trained to do a job. While a doctor’s negligence can lead to someone’s life being snuffed away, blaming a doctor for trying to save an ailing old man’s life but failing, leads one nowhere. They are not God. For the media to go heckle doctors working in meagre conditions, with the meagre conditions being the fault of the administration, only add to the frenzy, doesn’t solve it.

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