The humble ‘family doctor’ is now extinct; this is the age of the specialist who doesn’t know your name
If you are of a certain age, you will remember a regular visitor to your home who was referred to as the ‘family doctor’. He was, nearly always, a nice middle-aged man (in movies, he was often played by the avuncular Ashok Kumar) who came carrying a black bag, with a stethoscope slung around his neck. He had treated you since you were a baby and knew exactly what ailments you had (or had not) suffered. He knew which bones you had broken. He knew what you were allergic to. He knew that you had trouble swallowing tablets, so he would get his compounder to make up a sweet mixture into which he would dissolve that bitter pill.
If you or any other family member had a fever, a bad cough and cold, or even a sprained ankle, he was always just a phone call away. And there was never a more reassuring sight than his entering your bedroom, the legendary black bag in hand. If the ‘family doctor’ was in the house, all would soon be well with the world.
Younger readers will, of course, have no idea what I am talking about. Because the family doctors that readers of my generation grew up with are now an endangered species. Actually, scratch that. They are virtually extinct. I don’t know any household that can boast of one; and I am pretty sure, you don’t either.
These days if you fall ill, you have to head to the nearest clinic in the neighbourhood, register your name with an ill-tempered (sometimes downright rude) receptionist, and then settle down in an over-crowded waiting area with dozens of other sick folk for an interminable wait until the Great Man (sadly, even now, it is mostly a man) summons you inside. (A doctor’s ‘appointment’ should really be called an ‘approximation’.)
Unlike the family doctor of yore, this chap has no idea who you are. Even if he has treated you a couple of times before, he has no recollection of that. And frankly, he doesn’t have the time to go through your entire medical history (haven’t you seen how many people are waiting outside for the benefit of his wisdom?). So, feeling suitably intimidated (and even sicker, for good measure) you quickly rattle off your symptoms, he makes a cursory check of your vitals, writes out a prescription and sends you on your way, adding to your retreating back that there’s really no need to come back unless you absolutely have to. The implication is clear: he is a Very Busy Man and has no time to waste on malingerers like you. You should be grateful for the five minutes he’s spent on you (while you, on the other hand, have spent Rs 2,000!).
Hospitals are even worse, making the neighbourhood clinic look like a centre of compassion and care. Here the doctors are specialists, so of course, they see themselves as Gods of their domain. You have to beg for an appointment, sit outside their offices for hours hoping to get a look-in, and even then you may end up going home disappointed (‘Emergency surgery’ is the usual excuse).
I guess all of us have our hospital horror stories, but the time I last consulted a ‘super-specialist’ was in a different league altogether. After a wait that lasted exactly one hour and 17 minutes, I was ushered into his presence. As I was taking out my latest reports to show him, a middle-aged couple walked into the room and sat down in the two chairs facing him. They needed to discuss the surgery of a family member, they said.
Just wait, the doctor told them, as he began riffling through my reports. Then turning to me, he asked, “So, what are you exact symptoms?”
I looked at him, then looked at the two strangers in the room watching avidly, and turned back to stare at him incredulously. There was a short silence, as he waited impatiently for me to answer.
“Perhaps,” I ventured, “You could finish with these people before you begin with me.”
“No, no, that’s okay, they can wait,” he said, in the manner of someone bestowing a rare honour on me.
“Actually, I would prefer it if you finished with them…” I started. But before I could even finish my sentence, he had a blood pressure cuff on my arm, and was taking a reading.
By now, I was incandescent with rage, but he seemed completely oblivious to it. Ignoring the smoke coming out of my ears, he said, “Your blood pressure seems a little high.”
No s***, Sherlock!
As soon as the cuff was off my arm, I made my excuses and left. But I am pretty sure that the good doctor still continues with his version of medical multi-tasking, dealing with two or three patients at a time, with nary a thought about the violation of privacy this entails. In any other country, he would be brought up before an ethics board; in India, he is a revered as a ‘super-specialist’.
But then, why blame him alone? Most hospitals in this country have become little more than commercial enterprises, in which doctors are rated on how well they meet ‘corporate targets’ (that’s new-fangled medicalspeak for ordering up needless tests, procedures and surgeries on hapless people, so that the bottom line of the hospital looks healthy – even if the patients don’t).
Give me a good, honest, down-to-earth ‘family doctor’ instead. But sorry, I forgot, that creature doesn’t exist any longer.