Zubeda Hamid looks at the city’s exalted past in organised healthcare, dating back to 1664

For generations together, if someone fell sick or was diagnosed with something tricky, the standard response of the extended family was: “Let’s go to Madras and get it checked out.”

It didn’t matter if you were in Karnataka or Jharkhand or, if your eyes were affected or your liver was — Madras was where the experts were, Madras was where the best care could be had: Madras and medicine were synonymous.

The city’s history with medicine is old, exalted and entrenched in its roots. Way back in 1664, the first British hospital in India was set up at Fort St. George, to minister to sick soldiers of the East India Company.

Begun by Edward Winter, the hospital grew and expanded and moved about before settling down where the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital now stands.

“The Portuguese may have brought Western medicine to India,” said historian S. Muthiah, “but the base for a systematised and widespread network of government-run hospitals began with the hospital in Madras.”

Over the course of the next 340 or so years, the city’s connection with medicine only grew. Doctors from Europe and Eurasia trained and practiced at the first hospital.

Madras Medical College was set up in 1835, making it one the oldest colleges of European medicine in Asia.

In 1900, the Christian Medical College, Vellore was established, attracting some of the best talent in the United States.

Many medical procedures were pioneered in the State, and as vice-chancellor of Tamil Nadu Dr. MGR Medical University, Dr. Mayil Vahanan Natarajan, put it, “It was considered prestigious to work here. GH was a tertiary-care hospital when it began and all the stalwarts of medicine practiced there,” said Dr. Natarajan, who worked there for 36 years. “Over the years, the patient inflow into GH has only grown – a testament to its service.”

The Cancer Institute, Adyar, set up in 1954, and Sankara Nethralaya, in 1976, only added to the city’s reputation, and along with the GH, served as renowned centres for diagnosis, treatment and research for decades.

Chennai is now the hub of medical tourism in the country, an industry that is expected to grow at an estimated 30 per cent per year, say industry experts, to become worth about Rs. 9,500 crore by 2015, according to The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

Medical tourism is not new here. Even before the term had been coined and even before the advent of corporate hospitals — a phenomenon that began with the establishment of Apollo Hospital in 1983 — patients flocked here from across the country.

“I remember, when I was a medical student,” said P.V.A. Mohandas, founder and managing director of MIOT Hospitals, “patients came to the GH from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and parts of Orissa too. They arrived in train-loads at Central Station — all to seek the expertise of doctors in Madras.”

The doctors, he added, became adept at several languages in order to be able to converse with their patients.

It didn’t matter then who the patient was — a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu or a daily-wage labourer from Orissa — all were treated and taken care of, at GH.

MIOT Hospitals receives patients from across the globe — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Singapore included. Multi- and super-specialty hospitals have been established across the city, bringing in an estimated 150 international patients every day.

Some reasons for medical tourism have changed over the years. For those from the West, the factors include low costs (the rates of some surgeries are at an estimated one-tenth of their cost in the US and western Europe), little to no waiting period, and excellent facilities offered at specialty hospitals here.

But the one reason that has remained a constant throughout the city’s medical history, and that has brought patients from far and wide, is the faith reposed in the doctors and the care offered here.

“Patients and their families have always had confidence in the GH and its doctors,” said Dr. Natarajan. And, by extension, in the city itself.

One reason given is that doctors never rushed into treatment without intense deliberation. And this has achieved what no amount of marketing could — word of mouth from one patient to another, recommending Chennai and its hospitals.

As Dr. Mohandas said, “If you are to lie on a table and wait for someone to cut you up, you need to have absolute faith in him or her.” A faith that the city has engendered and continues to earn.

Keywords: Madras history

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