Long wait for treatment in these poorly equipped government institutions

With cancer treatment centres in government medical colleges and public hospitals across the State poorly equipped and facing a staff shortage, it is a long wait for patients to get treatment. Delayed treatment often has disastrous consequences for them.

The only hope for patients is the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Thiruvananthapuram and the Malabar Cancer Centre in Thalassery. But not all can make it to these autonomous hospitals, which are taking much of the caseload now.

If the medical college and other government hospitals give proper care, the RCC will not have to take this much load, say a doctor at this hospital and another of a medical college. Cancer treatment put the patients into tremendous physical, mental and financial strain. Hence, getting treatment at a place near home will be a blessing.

Every government medical college has an oncology department, which, however, is not fully equipped. The patients have to wait for months to get radiation treatment. A Professor of Radiation Oncology says the waiting period in the Thrissur medical college hospital is about three months. Other medical college hospitals have similar or longer waiting periods.

Equipment lying idle

Linear accelerators, considered a necessity for comprehensive care in radiation oncology, had been lying idle in three medical college hospitals for about two years because of power supply problems. Only recently the linear accelerator started working in the Kottayam and the Kozhikode medical college hospitals. In the Alappuzha hospital, the equipment has not been installed in the absence of proper power supply lines.

Even while the government voices its concern for cancer care, little gets done in public hospitals, where thousands of new cancer cases are reported every year. In the Thiruvananthapuram medical college hospital, 3,000 new cases are reported every year. The Kozhikode medical college hospital gets 4,500 new cases every year, the Kottayam hospital 3,000, Thrissur 2,500 and Alappuzha 1,000 to 1,500.

Technicians, physicists and staff nurses are important personnel that make radiation oncology work smoothly, a Professor says. Unlike the RCC, where decisions are taken by the Director, the government hospitals find it difficult to get personnel.

The Health Services has no radiation oncologist with a postgraduate degree in the discipline.

The General Hospital in Ernakulam has a functioning team, but the rules demand that a specialist with an MD degree is necessary in a radiation oncology department. Still the hospital has been handling a good number of patients with two cobalt units for radiation therapy.

Surgeries kept pending

The Health Services has no trained surgical oncologists. General surgeons do cancer surgeries, but with fewer anaesthetists, surgeries are kept pending, a Professor in a medical college says.

The government has not been able to develop any institution other than the RCC to provide comprehensive cancer treatment with medical oncology, surgical oncology and radiation oncology streams.

Earlier, funds were scarce, but now the government has funds but these are not channelled properly, says a doctor in a medical college. The political leaders fail to understand the need for comprehensive care.

With the Karunya Benevolent Fund Scheme, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and free treatment of cancer for children below 18, the onus is on the government to provide treatment.

Because of the huge treatment costs, many patients rely on government hospitals. Private hospitals with full-fledged facilities have come up in cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. The linear accelerator therapy in a private hospital could cost about Rs. 1.6 lakh, while the RCC charges Rs. 75,000. In the government sector, such state-of-the-art treatment is free to poor patients.

Doctors with a postgraduate degree in radiation oncology are very few. Till recently, only the Thiruvananthapuram medical college had a course in the discipline, with three seats. The Diploma in Medical Radiation Technology course had two seats.

The Medical Council of India has now granted more seats to the State — eight in the RCC and two each in the Kottayam, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Alappuzha medical colleges.

They were earlier offering only postgraduate diploma courses. Altogether the State will have 25 seats, adding those in private medical colleges.