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An altruistic ‘DOC’trine

Published Nov 1, 2015, 8:38 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 6:57 am IST

Preppy and suave, doctors today are also game-changers — through teaching, research, mobilising debate and tussles with bureaucracy to empower health

Humankind had healers centuries ago. Learned men and women who imparted panaceas and were a shield of protection. Those healers of a bygone era are doctors with a social conscience today, who have taken their efforts to encompass a life affirming aspiration. Today’s doctor has upped the ante, and is breathing change and humanity in his individual efforts.


Switching from leather duffel bag and bespectacled avatars to a preppy, suited, booted and crisp tie, sporting laptops, but their inner beliefs looks beyond the Hippocrates Oath, to instill faith in mankind. Going beyond their call of duty, they create ground-breaking foundations be it through teaching, research or having constant tussles with bureaucracy to change laws that puts “health” as the one and only criteria to govern the world.

At the heart of this change is oncologist surgeon, Prof. Pankaj Chaturvedi of Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital in Mumbai, who has mobilised debate and changed laws in various states with his campaign against tobacco. “We all believe medicine is about healing wounds of an individual and society. The larger service is that of public health. I am a cancer surgeon and today 50 per cent of cancers are related to tobacco use, and majority present themselves in advanced stages, it is a very complex problem of an industry that is for profit and corporate greed. I ask my students for one thing at Tata — to do something about the tobacco problem wherever they go. We converted the whole tobacco control into a political problem, but there was one problem — everybody has been going with statistics but no one saw the real face of tobacco, so we tell the stories.

And we get doctors to rally. Like Dr Vijay Anand Reddy, an oncologist and director at Apollo in Hyderabad, engages in high- level talks with bureaucrats for 10 minutes to help change laws — it equals a million-dollar NGO effort,” explains the tireless game changer.

Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi has also been feverishly working against gutka. Recently, they successfully banned paan masala in Maharashtra, Bihar, etc. “Arekanut is cancer causing, and should not be sold as a mouth freshener — while we are not proponents of a ban, we are against glamourising such uses. We are turning our attention to alcohol — a recent study revealed a 55 per cent increase in teenage drinking. We are also campaigning against the e-cigarette, which has no documented benefit at all. The fact that ITC is marketing it should be an indicator,” explains the man who wants to empower health from grass-roots level.  

A visionary Dr Chaturvedi recognised that fundamental change wouldn’t happen until public figures confronted horrifying realities that he sees every day, so his Voice of Tobacco Victims campaign and the Maharashtra Cancer Warriors are all endeavours to create a world that cares and finds precautions instead. He laughs adding, “We are actually working against our profession that strives on patients, but we are solving a larger malaise that ails society.”

Care and comfort: For Dr Prince John, a palliative care specialist in Mumbai, it is about alleviating pain. He has been working with terminally-ill patients and their families. “We take a holistic approach towards working with patients with advanced chronic conditions. Very often, the nature of my work is charitable as even though the institutions pay me to treat patients, they do not charge money from them. Children who have lost their parents to cancer and have nowhere to go, or patients who end up spending all that they have on treatments —  we try to find a way of helping them cope, build a life and even source rations. Recently, we found a way to provide boarding schooling to two teenagers who had lost both parents to cancer.”

Dr Swaminath G. has for the past 20 years conducted a mental health camp every month at the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital in Heggadadevanakote Taluk in Mysore. “I also run Chittadama, a residential rehabilitation centre for the homeless with mental illnesses. We pick up the homeless and mentally-ill from the streets, treat them and try to reunite them with their families,” he explains. He has reunited 35 people with their families. He is now running a midday meal scheme at two government schools in his locality.

The teaching doctor: They learn, they teach, they constantly embellish their knowledge. Then some go a step further to give back. Not many know that the word doctor actually comes from the Latin word doctoris meaning teacher, informs spine surgeon Dr Thomas Kishen who has taken the onus on himself to teach.

With his first-of-its-kind Bone School, Dr Kishen imparts very specific teaching programmes to young Orthopaedic trainees. The doctor with a graduate certificate on teaching from the University of New South Wales, keeps his Sundays for this free training. “It is so fulfilling to teach the next generation of orthopaedic doctors. Everybody does a regular teaching programme, but the Bone School is a one-of-its-kind entity which teaches topics with faculty and doctors coming in from all over India. I started it at Sparsh, and now it’s at Manipal Hospital in Bengaluru, a one-day session where 40 to 50 PGs come on Sunday, and every month, we focus on a separate topic — bone parts, tieing knots, bone models,” says the spine surgeon.

There is Dr Ashesh Bhumkar, who has been doing ear surgeries for eight years now and travels across the world for this specialised surgery through his External Ear Re-construction Centre at Thane. Dr Bhumkar explains, “Deformities of the ear are anguishing. In the ’70s, Dr Burt Brent, the Father of Modern Ear Reconstruction, started a jigsaw puzzle of surgeries. Later, a Japanese Dr Nagata changed this many-stage surgery to a single stage. I do these surgeries, some free of cost, for those who need it, especially people from Kerala,” says the surgeon who hopes to inculcate this as a curriculum.

Oncologist surgeon Dr Vishal Rao is trying to spearhead change in the tobacco arena and working with the government in formulating laws. He has come out with a prosthesis that helps restore speech to cancer patients who have lost their voice box — the Aum Voice Prosthesis functions like a voice box and unlike the European one that costs Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000, this costs Rs 50 and has been patented. He spends weekends working with juvenile children at the Don Bosco homes and Satya Sai charity. “I am working on a magic bullet on cancer — a theory in carcinogens with chemists,” explains Dr Rao who constantly tussles with bureacrats as part of the state anti-tobacco cell in Karnataka.

Dr Yadagiri Rao, former general secretary, Indian Medical Association in Telangana state, is cynical about the government’s role in creating health as a way of life, and also about young doctors who value a large bank balance. “A minority — less than 30 per cent doctors — are helping society, the rest are not. When I did my studies in Warangal, I paid Rs 20,000 for my education. Now, students have to pay Rs 10 lakh in even a government college. So a budding doctor will never think of doing charity, as he has to pay such a big amount. Previously, the government used to sponsor education, but not now. So it’s rare to see a young doctor take time out to do charity. You’ll only see the lot above 60 years doing something,” explains Dr Rao.

Given the kind of finances needed today to become a doctor, the need to repay those loans keeps many young doctors away from charitable causes. Says Dr Chaturvedi, “My advice to budding doctors is that the human body is a perfect creation of the lord and doctors are the only ones permitted to meddle with it. We need to understand the seriousness of the task given to us, and also need to strengthen medical colleges. The government has failed to invest in medical colleges that offer state of the art services. Doctors need to understand that this is the noblest of professions in the world and they should keep its sanctity and empower health.”