Doctors in India have locked horns with the federal government which is all fired up for the passage of a parliamentary bill to replace the Medical Council of India (MCI), a 60-year-old, under-a-cloud medical education regulatory body, with a new commission.
After countless token strikes in the past to save the MCI and an effective dawn-to-dusk boycott of outpatient departments in hospitals only last week, the 215,000-odd angry doctor-members of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) have rolled up their sleeves for a massive protest in national capital New Delhi against the ‘pro-rich’ and ‘anti-democratic’ measure.
While the health ministry claims that the National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill, 2017 is aimed at making the country’s medical education world-class and nursing the medical services back to health, the whitecoats say the ‘draconian’ legislation will drive a nail in the coffin of the noble medical profession.
Allowing Ayurveda, Unani and homeopathic doctors to practise allopathy, regulating only 50 percent of seats in medical colleges, and nominating people with non-medical background on the new commission are some of the provisions which have needled IMA, the country’s largest association of doctors, which is now bent on taking its battle to the streets.
The total health expenditure of India is a pathetic 4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product compared to the World Health Organization’s standard of 6 percent. The country does not have even one doctor for a population of 1,000, what with a 2015 Price Waterhouse Coopers report revealing a shortage of three million doctors and about six million nurses, and the situation has indubitably turned worse.
Although rural India accounts for about 70 percent of the population, it has less than one-third of nation’s hospitals, doctors and nurses as well as beds, resulting in large disparities in health outcomes across states. The country with the highest number of medical colleges in the world has about 55,000 medical college seats but experts in the loop say it will take 50 years to clear the backlog if India continues to produce doctors at the current rate.
No wonder, the Narendra Modi regime wants to meet the appalling shortfall through the NMC Bill which will let thousands of Ayurvedic, homeopathic and Unani practitioners to prescribe allopathic medicines to the sick but the IMA likens the proposed law in favour of ‘half-baked’ healers to throwing patients to the dogs.
According to Dr Pratibha Athavale, an Ahmedabad-based, award-winning dentist who has been offering free treatment to poverty-stricken villagers in camps organized by the Indian Army near the Pakistan border, a medical student slogs for six years to acquire a doctor’s degree but under the NMC Bill, the ‘quacks’ will turn allapaths after just a six-month course.
“However, the concept of ‘arogya mitra’ who is a non-medical graduate working as a patient assistant in the countryside and prescribing only Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicines is a welcome one,”, says Dr Athavale.
If a section of physicians favouring the Bill argue that the fee regulation for 50 per cent of seats in private medical colleges will enable ambitious students from the middle class to easily seek admission, the IMA contends that handing over the reins of the remaining 50 percent of seats to private medical colleges will empower them to allocate seats as per their whims and fancies, thus making medical education beyond the reach of the common man.
Indeed, even before the controversial Bill is passed by both Houses of Parliament, private medical colleges in Uttarkhand and Maharashtra have already jacked up their fee to Rs 2.5 million to Rs 3 million per year for the coveted MBBS degree course. Again, as diabetologist Dr Yash Patel opines, the bureaucrats will play a key role in medical education if the NMC Bill is passed.
“If medical education is made a commodity, medical services will also become a commodity to be traded. The medicos, the society, the judiciary, the intelligentsia and the man on the street must fight the NMC Bill to keep medical profession out of the reach of those with ulterior motives”, asserts top-drawer diabetologist Dr Mayur Patel.
Indeed, the parliamentary standing committee set up by the Modi administration after IMA protests had made several recommendations but Dr. Parthiv Sanghvi, secretary of IMA, Maharashtra, says that hardly 1% of the suggestions have been taken into consideration. The association in a rejoinder told the health ministry that the Bill has a draconian character which will cause irreparable damage to the interests of all the stakeholders and would reduce regulatory mechanism to a puppetry with its strings attached to the government.
In sum, even as the medical fraternity is waiting with bated breath to see how the government manages to pass the NMC Bill in its present form with not enough lawmakers in the Upper House, the IMA has threatened to intensify its protests in the days to come.