Last week, a newborn baby was bitten to death at the Government General Hospital at Guntur. It was a familiar narrative. Over long years of government apathy, a major public hospital allows its systems go to seed: the funds dry up, the equipment stutters and fails, supplies run out, maintenance is neglected, the lift stops working, the wiring is cellotaped, the orderlies go to sleep, doctors get harangued by patients, and rats begin to scurry about. And then a baby dies. Society is outraged, Ministers come by and suspend a doctor or two. And then someone says, “It’s always like that in government hospitals.” And next time that someone will take an ailing relative to a private hospital.
Each time a baby dies, the public health system suffers a little more loss of credibility. Say what you will about lack of infrastructure, shortage of funds and manpower and an unmanageable patient load, our faith in state-run hospitals ebbs and a case is made for private healthcare, even for those who cannot afford it. Is it a surprise then than doctors working in public healthcare have developed gallows humour?
“Our self-esteem is measured not in how many lives we save but in how many we ‘killed’,” says a senior doctor at the Government General Hospital, Vijayawada.
The death of the baby at GGH Guntur is just one case in point. Most people blamed the doctors and staff without asking whether the hospital was adequately staffed and funded. Ministers are happy to scapegoat and grandstand rather than go back to their drawing boards to find solutions to the real problems underneath.
This is precisely why private health providers have mushroomed everywhere, driving healthcare costs up for all but the rich. The government’s perennial apathy towards state-run hospitals actually helps the private medical sector to blossom.
“It is the government’s responsibility to cater to the medical needs of the people. It cannot shirk this responsibility. People prefer private hospitals because they do not get what they need in government hospitals,” says G. Samaram, former national president of the Indian Medical Association.
So who is the real villain of the piece? Government hospitals, private hospitals or the government itself?
Most people are so caught up with this blame the government hospitals syndrome that they grow oblivious to the fact that private hospitals too present problems to society, if not in terms of quality of care but in terms of the cost of healthcare. There are ills that plague private healthcare too. They are not the same but different.
“Evils abound in private hospitals too,” says paediatrician G. Gangadhara Rao. “The percentage of corruption is 10:90 in the public and private sectors respectively.”
If government hospitals are beset with poor infrastructure and indifferent treatment protocols, private hospitals are gaining notoriety for inflated billing, unnecessary diagnostics and skewed health priorities, in which society invests heavily in expensive technology to cure urban lifestyle afflictions whereas what the general population needs are affordable medicines for commonplace diseases.