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Into the hospital labyrinths of these times

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Here is an ecosystem that marries cures and commerce, and it is all so different from the past

A sudden illness took me into the relatively new world of the modern private hospital recently. The whole experience was disconcerting, even unsettling, in a way that had little to do with my medical problem. In fact, that problem soon took a back seat to my conscious and avid absorption in the social economy of this modern health arena.

The first thing that hit me was the atmosphere. Cabs and private cars queued up to enter the portico, ushered by arm-waving private guards, and disgorged their passengers who immediately swept through the revolving glass doors to the welcoming smiles of the door-keepers. It seemed more like the entry to a hotel rather than a hospital. Notwithstanding the plethora of wheelchairs and assorted humans with patches, bandaged appendages and hovering escorts that were around.

Once inside, a wide open lobby with a reception sign and the smell of brewing coffee, so different from the hospitals of my childhood that smelt of disinfectant and despair, reinforced the five-star hotel feel. The air was purposeful and upbeat as you got directions to the relevant department via the billing counter, your next stop. Here is where you may get the first inkling that things are more serious than they seem.

The snaking lines

The multiple straggly queues remain horizontal, as several people queue up for one billing, and grow vertically too, moving at the same unhurried pace of most Indian lines. The ethnic mix is eclectic: Afghans, Arabs and East Africans mixed with the city’s upwardly mobile and upcountry imports from Jharkhand and Bihar. The billing amounts run to several thousands each, handled in smoothly signposted transactions (OPD billing, zero billing, follow-up billing, and so on) that imply progression, by uniformed millennials at the counters.

Next, you head to the arena of the specialists. This is an open space with seating like an airport boarding gate, surrounded by cabins with the name plates of the presiding doctors optimistically labelled, “Dr Abc wants you to get better’, in flowery script. Another nursing station, run by a bunch of confident young women, gather receipts and move patients and their attendants towards the waiting area seamlessly and efficiently. In an inspiring display of female multitasking abilities, blood pressure and weights are checked, multiple questions fielded and the doctor’s appointment queue kept running.

Now comes the waiting. In many ways this is the one part of the hospitals of old that I remember as being similar. However, here too the changing times are visible. The crowd is multi-ethnic though largely Third World: the burkha-clad Somalian woman and her squiggly haired progeny alongside the Pathans and their families of fair, beauteous women; the fashionable South Delhi elite, their flamboyant fashions on full display; and the more traditionally sari-clad outsiders from small town India, so obviously dressed in their best. The fashion quotient of the waiting area is thus quite high and helps pass the time quite pleasantly if one is able to escape the feeling of falling below the average.

The other thing that is similar, actually exactly the same as in the past, is the rampant, almost morbid, curiosity of strangers. Almost as soon as you settle down for the wait, several eyes are upon you. The one nearest, strikes up a conversation with your companion if you don’t make eye contact. ‘So have you come to see the xyz specialist? What’s wrong? Oh, is that your daughter? Dr So and So is very good, you know; my husband has been coming to him since 2015.’

Medical histories

A continuous stream pours forth, fuelled probably by both anxiety and curiosity. My companion, in the same mode, starts on my medical history, in spite of my elbow in her side.

The wait, even thus beguiled, seems endless but is in fact an hour or so, in spite of an appointment, which I learn later just gets you a slot. The latter is pretty elastic too, as relatives/VIPs/ other doctors jump the queue with impunity and entitlement.

The doctor is the next port of call: hearty and accessible, exuding goodwill and competence in equal measure. Quick to quell any flights of fancy or Internet-based knowledge with polite firmness while steering the patient and his entourage towards the battery of inevitable tests and pricey medication. Much like a tasting menu at exclusive restaurants they seem fraught with possibilities.

As with such meals, one leaves feeling both satiated with the feast and concerned about both the costs and the side-effects on one’s longer term well-being.

Yet, one is back in a few weeks eager for the next dose, in both cases. So a whole new fashionable, cosmopolitan, feel-good ecosystem that marries cures and commerce, curtsey and service at a price, has, I discover, replaced my traditional hospital experience for ever.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 6:58:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/into-the-hospital-labyrinths-of-these-times/article20551571.ece

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