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Sisterhood of strength

Sakhi, an all-women clinic in Mumbai, doesn’t merely treat women, it teaches them to make their health a priority, reports Dhamini Ratnam.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2009 01:10 IST
Dhamini Ratnam

A few months ago Dinkar Menon’s fiancee took him to visit a dietician for weight loss tips. It took him a while after he entered her clinic to realise something was missing. Then he looked around and figured it out: there were no men there. Menon, 27, had just entered Mumbai’s first all-women clinic, Sakhi. “It was a great experience. I fully support this concept,” he says.

The brainwave to create a clinic just for women struck Dr Rekha Bhatkhande, a consultant gastroenterologist, three years ago. Her aim was to provide women a space where they could deal with their health concerns without inhibitions. But more importantly, she wanted to change a mindset that fails to prioritise women’s health.

Her friend — and colleague in Dadar’s Sushrusha Hospital — Dr Rajashri Kelkar, immediately liked the idea. Nothing like this had been attempted in the city before, after all. Kelkar (38), a surgeon who specialises in breast surgery, approached two other colleagues, Dr Deepali Prabhat (38), a gynecologist who also works with an NGO that focuses on community health, and dermatologist Dr Prajakta Pawar (38). Both agreed to come on board. Together, they approached hospitals, including their own, for help. Nothing came of it.

“The hospitals we approached acknowledged the need for such a clinic, but refused to help us. Besides space constraints, they also said that they had more male consultants and doctors, so such a clinic would be difficult to set up,” recounts Bhatkhande.

All the more reason to set up such a clinic, the four friends realised. Going by experience, they were all certain that a majority of women patients would feel most comfortable with a woman doctor.

They set up an independent clinic in Dadar on October 11, 2008, the last day of Dussehra, and called it Sakhi, which in Hindi means a female friend.

Healthcare, not medication

“Sakhi is more than just a clinic with all women doctors,” said Prabhat, who also works with the Centre for Study of Social Change, an NGO in Bandra that deals with women in slums. “We are committed to spreading awareness about women’s health. We have packages of tests for women of different age groups, at lowered rates. We have held camps with schoolteachers, where we spoke to them about the need to have a mammography and pap smear test,” she adds.

Prabhat emphasises the need for preventive instead of curative medication. “Most women don’t go for check-ups; they see it as a waste of money. What they don’t realise is that a small investment now prevents a larger expenditure later if they do fall ill,” she says.

According to Kelkar, money is not the only factor that holds women back from undergoing tests. “Women just don’t care enough about their health,” she says. This attitude, she feels, needs to be remedied immediately, as the incidence of breast cancer is on the rise in India.

“In the next 10 years, 1 in every 10 Indian women will have breast cancer and most of them don’t even know how to conduct a proper breast self-examination,” she says. Kelkar also stresses the need to educate the current generation of young women, so that when they hit their forties, they’ll be more aware and sensitive to their health.

“The concept behind Sakhi is also to sensitise families towards women’s health,” says Bhatkhande.

The clinic may have been created with women in mind, but men aren't turned away. “Of course they are allowed,” says Pawar, who gets male patients for skin treatments. “We are doctors after all.”