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Making a case for the safety of health professionals in India

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Rishi Khemani
A keen observer of national politics and everything falling on its left and right.

In India, for long, people involved in one of the noblest professions have been subjected to harsh crimes for doing what they do- putting their days and nights to save lives. The recent pandemic has only drawn our focus not only towards one of the very important but also one of the most ignored issues i.e safety of our health professionals. The visuals of doctors being thrashed for doing their duty are distressing, but it is something that they have been facing since forever. The pandemic has only highlighted it for the people to see what they go through every day.

The cause of the problem and the solution

Working in healthcare is in itself a very stressful job. These professionals sacrifice their work-life balance to look after their patients who trust them with their well-being. They see things everyday that a common man wishes to never see in the lifetime. The patient load, long working hours and lack of client cooperation only make things worse. However, some blame should also be put on successive governments for not putting enough efforts in the form of expenditure to improve the infrastructure that enables provision of better facilities and even distribution of patient load. This problem stems from the level of primary healthcare and rises up to tertiary healthcare thereby leaving a negative intermingling effect. Much of the blame for this has to go to abysmal amount of budgetary expenditure that goes towards health sector.

The health sector just cannot and should not function on 1.28% of GDP and this has been appropriately noted by the government which aims at increasing this expenditure to 2.5% of GDP by the year 2025. By doing this, with a good number of new government healthcare institutions set up and old ones revamped, the government can ensure that patients in India can get the required amount of attention and care at hospitals. Alongside this, the government should also look at attracting big foreign investment in this sector. A good mix of public and private participation in this sector can do wonders for both the doctors and patients. As a result, with reduced burden, the doctors could work in a less stressed environment and the patient frustration can also be brought to a minimum.

Secondly, the patients’ mindset towards healthcare professionals, the resulting behaviour and attitude is another thing that needs a major change. In India, a country where dowry is an accepted custom among many sections, spending on healthcare is regarded as a rip-off. Yes, there might be a few cases in the country where doctors have not performed their duty ethically which may have ended up in grave outcomes but there isn’t a profession in this world which is corruption-free. Healthcare professionals everywhere in India have to bear the wrath for the wrongdoings of few of them involved in corruption. People need to understand that the cost of the treatment involves the cost of research put in the development of the drugs and equipment along with the cost of the expertise of the doctor using these techniques to treat the patient.

The healthcare system of a country would crumble if everyone starts getting treatments for free. How can a system function and sustain without money? This is where the government funded subsidized health insurance schemes need to step in. The culture of spending on health insurance schemes is still very weak in this country as a report in 2018 mentioned the uninsured status of more than one hundred million Indian households. The government has to bring about a change through awareness programmes and subsidized schemes for the uninsured poor. Reducing the financial burden of the treatment, though indirectly, can help hugely in minimizing the events of violence against doctors.

The way forward

In June 2019, after an incident of violence against junior doctors at NRSMCH Kolkata, which resulted in a huge strike by healthcare professionals, the Health ministry in September 2019 proposed the Health Services Personnel and Clinical Establishments (Prohibition of Violence and Damage of Property) Bill which aimed at punishing people who assault on-duty doctors and provided for a jail term of up to 10 years for such offences. The bill, which even received a go-ahead from the law ministry, was put on the back burner by the Ministry of Home Affairs as they stated that there was no need for a separate legislation to protect the members of a particular profession. However, the pandemic might be a blessing in disguise for the case of protection of healthcare workers as the recent episodes of violence against them have forced the government to bring an ordinance that provides for a jail term up to 7 years and fine up to Rs 7 Lakhs for perpetrators. This can be a good first step in the right direction but the need for a separate law still exists as violence against these professionals is not limited to this pandemic only.

Health workers should have a violence-free environment to work as its absence can be detrimental to patients’ interests. The violence can make hospital administration hesitant in admitting critical cases as the possibility of such occurrences as a consequence of failure to save life in such cases is high. This kills whatever small chances of survival exist for the patient. To curb such instances of violence, the enlightened citizens can also play their part by stepping in to thwart escalation by intervening at the right time. The pandemic might do its bit in raising the general level of respect for healthcare workers among the citizenry but in absence of a strongly implemented central law for protection of doctors, ensuring their safety is not possible.

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Rishi Khemani
A keen observer of national politics and everything falling on its left and right.

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