Putting a halo around the 'doctor' brand

My Yes, But … column of a fortnight ago on building a “police brand” with the men-in-khaki got me both bouquets and brickbats. It was hotly discussed and debated on various IAS/IPS Whatsapp groups. Almost everyone praised the current avatar of the police and their humanitarian work in the Covid-19 pandemic. But the near universal verdict was that the police force, save a few upright officers, is just too corrupted at the very core. Hence, a branding metamorphosis, howsoever creative, will not help if the scourge of corruption is not eliminated.

If the police are our protectors, the doctors are our saviours. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, despite the 24x7 yeoman service being provided by the medical profession … doctors and their teams of nurses, technicians and support staff … horrifying stories have surfaced about the treatment meted out to the men and women in white.

There have been media reports that doctors have been spat at and chased away from homes, and that in more than one case patients were openly abusive and insulting, using vulgar language towards female nurses. Some physicians and their families have been ostracised by their landlords and neighbours because of their exposure to patients infected with Covid-19. One video, which has gone wildly viral, showed a mob throwing stones at two female doctors wearing personal protective equipment in Indore. The doctors had apparently gone to a densely-populated area to check on a woman suspected of having Covid-19 when they came under attack. Despite being injured, one of the doctors seen in the video, Zakiya Sayed, bravely said the incident “won’t deter me from doing my duty”.

At least 20 people have been arrested in Chennai for violently preventing the burial of a prominent doctor who died of Covid-19. Dr Simon Hercules’ friends and family were attacked when they took his body to a burial ground at night. One of his friends had to quietly bury him in the early hours the next day, without any family members present. Through teary eyes, he wistfully said the neurosurgeon “didn’t deserve this end”.

The government’s health infrastructure has been woefully inadequate in the fight against Covid-19: Not enough ICU beds, vastly short count of ventilators, hardly any personal protective equipment, very few testing kits, low volumes of sanitizers, no medicines … doctors have been thrust into an unequal battle.

Yet, despite all the handicaps the men (and women) in white coats have done an admirable job. Battling disease. Saving lives. In work conditions that are pathetic and cringe-worthy. No food. No rest. No respite. As compensation perhaps, on March 22, Indians banged pots and pans, as a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s thanks-giving gesture for doctors, nurses and health workers. Some days later, in 9 pm-9 minutes, once again on the call of Mr Modi, the nation came together in another symbolic show of solidarity switching off lights and lighting lamps to thank our saviours, the doctors.

But are we really grateful to the whitecoat tribe? Do we give them the respect they deserve? Do we pay them in proportion to the long hours they work in ill-equipped hospitals? With scarce supplies, leaky and unkempt environs, outdated and non-functional equipment? India has less than one allopathic doctor per thousand people — the minimum recommended by the World Health Organisation — and only 1.7 nurses per thousand people, again well short of the WHO-recommended three per thousand. There is a chronic shortage of tens of thousands of critical-care specialists. Funding to the government hospitals is highly inadequate; hospitals are overcrowded; doctors are overstretched, dispirited and underwhelmed.

The dominant share of India’s doctors and beds are in the private sector today. The private sector has the best talent, the best resources, the best technology and the best infrastructure. But it also has an overhang of avarice, greed and pelf. Commerce over compassion. Which is where the “doctor” brand perhaps got stigmatised and somewhat tarnished. Where care and love got overwritten, and overshadowed, by overmedication, unwanted tests and costly stents. And this negativity not only drowned out the poor unsung government doctor who no one in any case cared much for, but robbed the entire medical fraternity of love, sympathy and admiration which the profession was rightfully entitled to.

The “whitecoat” brand is riddled with contradictions. Delight when a patient, a loved one, bounces back to good health. Enormous amount of gratitude; oodles of respect. But when a case goes awry, just anger and abuse. No one understands and appreciates that none but God can guarantee a 100 per cent success rate.

It is a tightrope walk for doctors. Heads they lose; tails they don’t win. Maybe 5 per cent of the tribe are affluent. About 20 per cent are well-to-do. They have stature and standing in society. About 75 per cent have little money. And very little esteem too. They are the ones who really need a brand overhaul. Positively. Urgently.

The writer is an advertising and media veteran

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