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3 Myths About Why Doctors Go On Strike In India

27/03/2017 8:24 AM IST | Updated 28/03/2017 12:34 PM IST
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

The preceding week was dominated by news regarding doctors in Maharashtra calling a strike to protest against increasing incidents of mob violence in hospitals. The general public's and the judiciary's reactions to the strike were, however, based on extremely idealistic and irrational concepts.

A resident doctor's—and in India, a doctors' strike is almost always resident doctors' strike— quality of life is embarrassingly poor despite repeated assurances by successive governments. In the unique Indian political scenario, their only hope towards some betterment—a strike—is, however, derided by the general public, from whom doctors expect at least as much sympathy and empathy as the latter expect from them. Here I attempt to bust three myths about doctors' strikes and hope to arm the common citizen with some relevant knowledge to form a more informed opinion in the future.

Myth 1: Patients die when doctors go on strike

This is certainly the most absurd of corollaries. We see some newsrooms framing headlines like "Doctors Strike In UP: 26 Patients Die." In reality, if one were to check the records of death statistics in big government hospitals on any non-strike day, one will find similar numbers. Perhaps those mediapersons even know that, but, as is alleged by resident doctors, such reporting is influenced by a strong bias against the medical community.

A more accurate headline is "Doctors' Strike: Apathetic Govt Kills 26 Patients."

There are dozens of reasons that can cause the death of a hospitalised patient, but "doctors on strike" doesn't figure anywhere in the list. Whenever there is a fire in a hospital, or a natural calamity, most doctors and healthcare workers rush for patients' safety first and foremost without caring about their own. And even when in a government hospital residents go on strike, there are always other trained, professional personnel (including senior doctors) present to take care of critical patients. No one is allowed to die due to negligence.

Myth 2: It's unethical for doctors to ever go on strike.

Imagine your next door neighbour playing annoying, ear-splitting music day in and day out, and that you are not even allowed to go to them and tell them to shut it. The only choice you are thus left with is to suffer. That's what happens with resident doctors in India's government hospitals. We need to remember that for resident doctors, the government is most often like that harassing next-door neighbour. In fact doctors will assert that a more accurate headline for the above example would have read "Doctors' Strike in UP: Apathetic Govt Kills 26 Patients."

Resident doctors have to encounter the government almost every day in all its various (frequently vicious) avatars: corruption, apathy, helplessness to assist patients in need, archaic rules and laws, annoying regulations, MLAs and local politicians making unethical demands, etc. There are endless issues in the public healthcare system and resident doctors bear the brunt bravely and silently most of the time. But rarely there occurs a situation (as happened on March 12 2017) when it becomes impossible for them to work in the status quo, with some catharsis becoming an absolute necessity to shake the lethargic authorities. A strike is only a last resort for medical professionals, and when resorted to, that simply speaks volumes about how hopeless the situation has become.

There is nothing wrong with doctors going on strike for reasons of better protection and dignity during work, more so because ultimately the benefits trickle down patients.

In a democratic society, whenever unjust rules and laws are not taken back by an authority, or when an authority fails in its duties, then non-cooperation by aggrieved citizens remains the most effective peaceful way to register protest. There is nothing wrong with doctors going on strike for reasons of better protection and dignity during work, 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 also lead to better patient services.

Myth 3: Doctors just want pay raises out of strikes.

There are two issues here. Firstly, why should demanding better pay be considered wrong? And secondly, a greater number of medico strikes (like the recent one) happen for better security and infrastructure than for higher pay.

Everyone wants a reasonable salary, and it is high time we got rid of the notion of expecting some kind of ideal "selfless" attitude from doctors with respect to remuneration. In India even school teachers have been known to strike for better pay by boycotting classes and even exams of students. Everyone has a right to a decent life, be it doctors, teachers or taxi drivers. So when government apathy forces a section of citizens to go on strike, we need to at least try to understand their agony and give them a sympathetic hearing.

[S]triking doctors are not a nuisance, but a sign of a healthy, thriving and peace-loving democracy (unlike the kind of protests we see the ABVP and Shiv Sena resorting to).

Secondly, as has been time and again pointed out by doctors themselves and by some journalists, the living conditions of most resident doctors in India are outrageous. Crowded rooms, filthy bathrooms, pests everywhere, inadequate sleep—these are just the tip of the iceberg. The government is aware of the situation but has hardly done any concrete job of improving their conditions. In such a scenario, when doctors have to additionally suffer assaults from patients and their relatives, with the government and police being unhelpful, a strike becomes inevitable. Resident doctors won't go on a strike unless forced to: toiling hard to see a smile on a patient's face is far more satisfying than dealing with corrupt, self-centred authorities.

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All in all, people should remember that striking doctors are not a nuisance, but a sign of a healthy, thriving and peace-loving democracy. A sign that someone somewhere is fed up with misgovernance and peacefully exhibiting their dissatisfaction (unlike the kind of protests we see the likes of the ABVP and Shiv Sena resorting to).

It would be constructive if the general public too to shed their scepticism about doctors' strikes. Ultimately the strikes benefit the common citizen, since an improvement in the conditions of public hospitals and resident doctors will lead to a betterment of services offered. Besides, as citizens we must always extend support to a genuinely dissenting individual, since tomorrow it might be us who are dissenting and in need of support. As someone has said, "All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good people to do nothing."

This article was first published in March 2014 on the website www.indiamedicaltimes.com.

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