The concept of family doctor is on the way out after centuries. This big change in the doctor-patient relationship, in my opinion, is unhealthy for society.
The village hakim or vaid used to be the most respected person around, and the royal hakims were the most important of kings' courtiers. In cities, the neighborhood physicians were the go-to guys in the hour of need, privy to the most intimate family secrets, yet the ones who never betrayed the clients.
I am an eye surgeon and my wife a gynaecologist. We have our practice for the past 30 years. My patients are elderly people mostly, while my wife serves women of all age groups. From my patients, I hear the stories of how their children neglect and hurt them. Talking to me, they say, lightens their burden. One of the stories is about an old man who lost his hearing ability one day and was brought to me. Two months after starting his treatment, when I examined him again, I found that his hearing ability was back but he was pretending before his family as if he was still deaf. When he was alone, I told him: "Your hearing is back, I am going to break the good news to your family."
"Doctor, I got my hearing back a month ago but didn't tell anyone. Assuming that I still couldn't listen to anything, they'd speak freely in front of me all they had in mind. I have changed my will three times in the past one month. Please, keep it a secret for a few more days," he said.
My wife has another predicament. Usually, mothers-in-law who accompany women to the gynaecologist tell her after the examination to give their daughters-in-law an extra dose of advice. "She does not listen to me. You know what she should eat and not eat at this time. Tell her, she will listen to you," they'd say. When, on the other hand, only the-daughter-in-law is called to the room, she will start complaining about the mother-in-law. The doctor often has to play a family counsellor and find a middle path.
Women get so close to their gynaecologists that they will share all their secrets and friends-and-family details with them. My wife now is confidante to the next generation, managing the pregnancies of the girls who were born in her hands. She gets invited to all their family functions and marriages as a member would be.
The respect commanded by a family doctor became evident to me when I took my parents on a nostalgic trip back to their village after 30 years. After making a round of the village, my father insisted on meeting only one person, his family doctor. He thanked him and said: "I can't forget you in my lifetime. I would knock at your door in the middle of the night when I was sick and you would give me medicine."
The onslaught of corporate hospitals has diluted this connect and respect. Everybody has health insurance these days, as medical treatment is getting costlier. The insurance companies have corporate hospitals on their accredited list; so to get cashless treatment, you are forced to report to unfamiliar doctors whom you may not find on your next visit. Save the institution of family doctor while there is time.
(The writer is an eye surgeon based in Ludhiana)