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India is known for healthcare, but its elites seem to disagree

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In 2014, Karnataka paid over $150,000 for housing minister Ambareesh's treatment in Singapore.

By: Bikram Vohra

Two high profile individuals in India have been diagnosed this week as seriously unwell. Chief Minister of Goa and former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly has pancreatic cancer, and character actor Irrfan Khan it is being said has a brain tumour. One wishes them both the best of luck and expresses the hope that they get past the medical challenge that faces them.

It is very easy to criticise Parrikar for flying off to the US for further treatment. Even though Indian medical aid at the esoteric level is supposedly no less advanced we still have that inclination to think the West is the best. When Sonia Gandhi went abroad for some treatment it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that mocked her for exercising the foreign option. Clearly, the rules change when it is one of their own. Then it becomes an imperative. We haven’t seen Irrfan dashing off. On the contrary, he seems most comfortable with Indian medicine men and women.

It is not unusual. In 2014, Karnataka paid over $150,000 for housing minister Ambareesh’s treatment in Singapore and that created a massive controversy.

The paradox is that India packages herself as the leading medical tourism destination. Patients from multiple countries fly into India for medical procedures. In the next two years it will earn over $7 billion, up five times in five years. In fact even in the future we are looking at a 25 per cent annual hike, which is perhaps the highest growth rate for any initiative in the land. A visit to the top facilities indicates that at least half the patients are non-Indian. Medical treatment is more attractive than the beach and the mountains. By the end of this year the Indian medical tourism sector will treat over two million visitors. It is one of the few countries that offers ‘medical visas’ for 30 days for foreigners to come and get treated with Chennai being the frontrunner of choice. It actively promotes this genre of tourism at international fairs and exhibitions as a separate entity. Globally, the value added facilities have been documented. The Medical Tourism Market Report, 2015 found that India was “one of the lowest cost and highest quality of all medical tourism destinations. It offers wide variety of procedures at about one-tenth the cost of similar procedures in the United States.”

In January, a report indicated that Americans were flocking to Indian hospitals as a result. Ironic it is then that the West comes to the East but leaders in India rush to the West.

Indian doctors and surgeons and specialists are arguably the most dexterous and skilled globally. Indian nursing staff are an export. Then why do the rich and the famous and the powerful at home feel a sense of dismay and uncertainty in their own? One reason is the mindset. Down the ages we were taught that the western world is a step or two ahead when it comes to medicine. Media, especially TV, stresses that bias and has done so since the days of Dr Kildare and Ben Casey and the visuals stay with us. Pioneering efforts, which are most certainly noteworthy, like the first heart transplant by Christiaan Barnard, the trailblazing by Dr Denton Cooley and it is these practitioners who get the publicity again reinforcing the image of superiority.

The other reason is that when faced with such a dilemma you and your loved ones want to leave no stone unturned, no option unused. While Irrfan has the right to privacy and has eschewed it, Parrikar as a public political leader does not have that luxury. Without intending to needlessly intrude on his privacy knowledge of his medical condition is a public right. It comes with the territory.

The statement from the Lilavati Hospital at Mumbai that Parrikar was responding well to treatment and denying his cancer (predicating it to media maliciousness) was made invalid when a day later Parrikar flew off to the US but no one knows where or at which facility.

Surely, a more transparent approach by the hospital and not so much secrecy over Parrikar’s destination would have created a more sensible medical plan at home and several experts could have been consulted. Maybe they were but it begs the question: are we in India still not on par with medical diagnosis, treatment and hi-tech equipment at the highest level? If India’s VIPs are advised to go abroad for special care have we then been fooled into believing we are the best.

And if there is such a lacuna at the top why is it not being addressed and rectified?

Again, what possible miracle can be performed in the US or Singapore that could not be achieved at home? This lack of confidence is questionable to the degree that if it is good enough for others then why is it not good enough for the legislators. We all understand when the chips are down every course of action, every alternate school of medicine is legitimate. Even gurus and hakims and snake oil dispensers are given a shot. But it is difficult to accept that India does not have the wherewithal to treat its most privileged persons. Kind of feel we let ourselves down with this frequent crisis of faith in ourselves.

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