We are aware that occasionally doctors go on strike in some or the other part of India. The general public’s reactions (and apparently even the judiciary’s) to doctors’ strikes are, however, based on extremely idealistic and impractical premises. A resident doctor’s (in India, a ‘doctors’ strike’ is almost always a resident doctors’ strike) quality of life is indeed most egregious despite repeated assurances by the government over improvements, and their only hope towards some betterment (in the unique Indian political scenario) — a strike — is always derided by the general public: people from whom they actually expect at least as much sympathy and empathy as the latter expect from them. Here we attempt to bust a few myths about health workers’ strikes and hope to arm the common man with extra knowledge to form an informed opinion.
Patients die when doctors go on strike.
This is surely the most ridiculous of corollaries. We see nincompoop reporters framing headlines like ‘Doctors strike in UP: 6 patients die’. I would invite the exceedingly erudite reporter to go see the records of hospital deaths on any non-strike day, and they’ll definitely find similar death numbers. But of course they know that; what matters to them is melodrama. In fact doctors find very hard to understand the always completely insane reaction of the media to their valid causes. We only hope that the trend changes.
There are dozens of factors that can cause the death of a patient and, frankly, doctors on strike doesn’t figure anywhere in the list. Whenever there is a fire in a hospital, a calamity or whatever, most doctors and healthcare workers rush for patients’ safety first and foremost, not caring about their own: that is JUST THEIR NATURE. And even when a section of a hospital’s workers goes on strike, there are always enough trained, professional personnel present to take care of critical patients. No one is allowed to die due to negligence.
Doctors should ideally never be allowed to go on strike.
Imagine your next-door neighbour playing ear-splitting, deafening, utterly crappy music day in and day out, and you are not even allowed to go to him and tell him to shut the hell up. Only choice you are left with is to suffer. That’s what happens with doctors. Remember, for all resident doctors in India, the government is but a next-door neighbour! (In fact, if I were the above nincompoop reporter, my headline would have read ‘Doctors Strike: Apathetic Govt Kills 6 Patients’.) Almost every day doctors have to encounter the government in all its various (vicious) avatars: corruption, apathy, helplessness to assist genuine patients, archaic rules and laws, nonsensical regulations, MLAs and local politicians making unethical demands, etc etc. There are endless issues in the healthcare system and doctors bear the brunt bravely and silently most of the time. But every once in a while, the govt makes it absolutely impossible for them to work in the status quo, with some explosion becoming unavoidably necessary to shake lethargic authorities. A strike is only a last resort, and if people are seeing strikes more frequently these days, then they better ruminate on how hopeless the administration has become that a last resort mechanism has to be employed more often. There is nothing wrong with doctors going on strike for the right reasons, more so because ultimately the benefits trickle down to the only all-important entity of any health system, the patient; satisfied doctors and better facilities are obviously going to result in better patient services.
Doctors just want pay raises out of strikes.
There are two issues here. Firstly, why is demanding a better pay considered wrong? And secondly, more medico strikes happen for better security, infrastructure, and quality of life than for better pay.
Everyone wants a good salary, and society and media should now seriously do away with this age-old practice of expecting some kind of ‘ideal’ attitude from doctors and nurses. Even teachers strike for better pay by boycotting board exams. Since the public is so obsessed with the argument that doctors deal with people’s LIVES so they shouldn’t go on strikes, it’s queer why they don’t employ it when doctors demand better pay: how can they stand someone who deals with their very lives being paid so miserably? Of course life is priceless, and to be honest any pay that a doctor gets is always going to be ‘inadequate’ by such parameters. Still, everyone has a right to a decent life, be it doctors, teachers or taxi drivers. So when govt apathy forces them to go on strike, the best thing to do is display empathy.
Secondly, as has been time and again pointed out by doctors themselves and by some (good) journalists (yes they do exist! Just like bad doctors; both subsets being a minority though), the living conditions of most resident doctors in India are totally outrageous. Cramped rooms, filthy bathrooms, pests everywhere, inadequate sleep, sudden patient and politician violence — you name it. The government is aware of all that but does nothing. And then when things go out of hand, a strike becomes inevitable. Doctors seriously won’t go on a strike unless forced to: toiling hard to see a smile on a patient’s face is much more satisfying than dealing with idiotic, corrupt, selfish authorities.
All in all, people should remember that striking doctors are not a nuisance, but a sign of a healthy, thriving democracy. A sign that someone somewhere is fed up with misgovernance and peacefully exhibiting their dissatisfaction (unlike the violence you see in the most desecrated temple of India, the Parliament). It would do good for the general public too to shed their scepticism about doctors’ strike because ultimately the strikes benefit the common man: public hospitals and their patients; and because ultimately as citizens we must always extend support to a genuinely dissenting individual since tomorrow it may be us who are dissenting and in need of support (a very very real possibility seeing the kind of politicians we have bred). As someone said: All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good men to do nothing.
Dr Kiran Kumbhar
Sassoon Hospital, Pune