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White Coats Turned Red—The Unnerving Reality of Violence Against Doctors

The year was 1864. The Indian populace’s health was rapidly deteriorating and the aggressive British policy of Divide and Rule had widened the class divide like never before. The aftermath of 1857’s revolt had left thousands diseased, dying, and in the absence of any actual medical care. In the midst of nationwide tension and chaos, it was decided that the Sealdah Market Building at the heart of Kolkata was to be converted to what is known today as the Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital, and it was quickly established that what ailing India needed, at its rock-bottom, was doctors.

Since its inception, NRS Medical College and Hospital has witnessed it all, from the disturbed state of the nation during the Partition to Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s work on India’s first test-tube baby. The doctors and medical staff at this iconic hospital have nursed starving patients back to health during the Bengal famine of 1943. They have discovered treatments for conditions like the Black Fever, worked on the techniques of the coronary bypass, and separated conjoined twins. In all its history, the practitioners at NRSMCH have done their job, and they have done it well. Owing to this, 145 years ago, no one would have guessed why this hospital has been brought to a standstill in the middle of June 2019—why its OPDs, operation theatres, and lecture halls have been dismayingly quiet recently.

Courtesy: NRSMCH’s 150th Anniversary’s Facebook page.

At 3:20 AM on Tuesday, 11th June 2019, junior doctors Paribaha Mukhopadhyay and Yash Tekwani were rushed to the Institute of Neurosciences (INS) in Mullickbazar, on account of brutal blunt force injuries to the skull, amongst other afflictions. The injuries were courtesy of a truckload of men, who descended upon the young graduates after the death of 75-year old Mohammad Sayeed, on Monday, 10th June.  He had suffered acute cardiac arrest in the evening and had developed arrhythmia. When his health did not improve, the doctors gave him an injection, a mixture of hydrocortisone and adrenaline, which is the last attempt at revival.

According to statements given to The Telegraph by a junior doctor present at the scene, soon after the relatives were informed of Md. Sayeed’s death, they forcibly entered the ward, created a ruckus, and alleged negligence. When the family arrived to retrieve the body, the doctors on duty asked them to apologise for their misdemeanour. The situation escalated, and policemen arrived from an outpost on campus. The relatives claimed that they were being withheld from taking the body away, which turned out to be untrue since the body had been sent for post-mortem to verify their allegations of negligence. Despite the relatives being told that they would have to wait, they left the premises claiming to thrash the doctors on their return. 

Meanwhile, according to a police officer who witnessed the event, the officers posted at the hospital tried to pacify the situation and escort the relatives into the outdoor hospital compound, where a formal apology could be issued. At this point, afraid of being subjected to harm by the large group of relatives, a small section of doctors entered the compound to usher the relatives and accompanying policemen out of the premises. The police had locked the main gate to prevent a confrontation between the relatives and doctors, but the lock was broken by those who had gathered to collect Mohammad Sayeed’s body, which led to the accumulation of a large crowd of relatives in the compound. This led to a prolonged clash between the parties, wherein hefty rocks, bricks, and coconuts were thrown at the doctors, which resulted in serious skull injuries that landed the doctors in the Intensive Care Unit. Three people were arrested at the time of the crime, while two more were picked up later that night. The victims have been reported to be in stable condition, three days after the confrontation.

This series of events, however, has resulted in a wave of solidarity among medical students and doctors alike, across the nation. With nearly every prominent Indian medical school taking to social media to condemn the recent events at NRSMCH, non-violent protests, dharnas, and strikes are also being organised. Several resident doctors at AIIMS, New Delhi, worked with bandages on their heads in a symbolic protest and boycotted work on Friday, 14th June in solidarity with the doctors protesting against the attack on their colleagues in West Bengal. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has directed the members of all its state branches to stage protests and wear black badges on Friday, 14th June. Regardless of protests, emergency rooms shall remain functioning. All over the nation, from Siliguri to Patiala, the medical fraternity has united to emphatically demand a central act on violence against doctors and hospitals. 

Courtesy: ANI News

In West Bengal, junior doctors at Government Medical Colleges have been mass resigning, in response to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s ultimatum to doctors to get back to work by 2 PM on Thursday, 13th June. There have been reports of more than 48 doctors resigning just 30 minutes post this deadline. These protests, however, haven’t come without their repercussions—stone pelting, open threats of acid attacks, death, and rape, and the alleged burning of rooms in boys’ hostels of Calcutta National Medical College.

According to a study by the Indian Medical Association, over 75% of doctors have faced violence at work. In 2012, a female doctor in Tuticorin was killed by the husband of a pregnant woman, who was admitted in a serious condition. The patient was referred to another hospital but died before she could be shifted. The husband entered the doctor’s consultation chamber with three accomplices and attacked her with a sword, resulting in her gruesome death. In 2014, in the Mansa district of Punjab, a doctor’s clinic was burnt down, following the death of a boy who was referred to a tertiary hospital but ultimately passed away.

The abuse of doctors isn’t a new occurrence. That being said, it has always lacked adequate coverage, with cases often being brushed under the rug and going unreported, owing to notorious families of goons or political connections. For government hospitals and primary health centres across the country, particularly in West Bengal and Maharashtra, violence by patients’ relatives, local goons, political leaders, and even by police has been reported. Often, the reasons cited aren’t monetary problems, but anxiety, long waiting periods, non-availability of certain medical investigations, inordinate delay in referral, and unhygienic and crowded conditions in emergency and general wards.

An important dimension of violence is the misplaced feeling of distrust in the doctors by relatives of patients, who suspect doctors of wrongdoings, in order to achieve financial gains through bribes or simply to avoid their duties. Long waiting periods before patients can speak to a doctor, one-on-one, and a feeling that the doctor isn’t paying complete attention to a particular patient plants a feeling of frustration, which often gives rise to violence. A step in the right direction could be the establishment of an efficient and functioning grievance redressal system. Most hospitals are equipped with trained security personnel, in order to deescalate potentially dangerous situations, if required. This, however, time and time again, has proved to be ineffective. Events like the unfortunate assault of junior doctors at NRSMCH have only solidified the need for better laws, focused on taking action against perpetrators of violence against medical professionals.

It cannot be denied that government hospitals in India are hopelessly overcrowded and extended beyond their limit. The construction and efficient administration of clinics and hospitals and incentivisation for affordable private healthcare are steps that are necessary if the current state of matters is to be changed. These, however, are long-term—or at best, mid-term—goals. They require new laws, budget alterations, and policy advocacy by experienced members of the medical fraternity, along with a strong stance and systematic actions, as opposed to merely talk, by government entities.

Courtesy: Times Internet

In the meantime, the public must educate itself on the etiquette and respect with which medical professionals must be treated. These practitioners study tirelessly for years and sacrifice most of their personal lives, in order to work odd-hours and serve those who come seeking their assistance. It is deplorable that the events at NRSMCH only gained attention from mainstream media after the ignorant statements made by Mamata Banerjee, wherein she sternly understated the severity of the situation. This speaks volumes about how little concern the media shows about issues that aren’t immediately politicised. Amidst the childish blame game that the Government of West Bengal has begun and the silence from most Central Government authorities, it is vital to establish that this is not a country where doctors are left to fend for themselves.

With violence against doctors now coming to the forefront, it is important to recognise that India possesses one of the cheapest and most effective health-care systems in the world, and this is courtesy of the doctors that selflessly serve at overburdened hospitals in less-than-ideal conditions. In the recent past, the country has been witness to young doctors leaving for the West to pursue better opportunities. One look at the current state gives a clear answer as to why and proves that significant steps need to be taken to retain these people who dedicate their lives to compassionate service. These professionals, under no condition, deserve to feel that their own lives are at risk while they attempt to save hundreds of others.

It must be established that this is a nation that cares, a nation that understands that medical practitioners are as human as the patients they treat. Amongst all this white noise, the real casualties may no longer only be the lives lost to illnesses across the nation, but also the declining faith that our doctors have in the system and the people they treat. After all, what is life, if lived to serve others, yet still lived in fear? 

Featured Image Courtesy: Getty Images

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