On August 6, 2009, Mazgaon resident Fatima Ratlamwala (48) stepped into a public hospital for the first time. Three days later, she walked out swearing never to set foot in one again.
“It was a nightmare,” said Ratlamwala, who was quarantined for suspected swine flu at the civic-run Kasturba Hospital at Chinchpokli. An entrepreneur’s wife, Ratlamwala usually goes to the plush Saifee Hospital at Charni Road.
“There were no bells to call the sister when I felt nauseous. The sheets on my bed were not changed even once. I wasn’t even sure I was getting the right treatment,” she said.
Ratlamwala is one of the countless Mumbaiites who had their first brush with Mumbai’s public health system when swine flu hit the city last year. Treatment for the viral infection was initially available only at Kasturba Hospital and other public facilities.
Till the 1970s, most of Mumbai trusted public hospitals for its healthcare needs. Not any more. Only 21 per cent of the city’s households use public health facilities, the rest go to private hospitals, says the 2009 Mumbai Human Development Report.
With overcrowded wards, long queues, inadequate facilities and staff shortages, government and civic hospitals do not offer a pleasant experience.
“People want personal attention, not just treatment. They also want everything done fast but at public hospitals, there’s a long wait for every diagnostic test,” said Dr Gustad Daver, director of professional services at PD Hinduja Hospital, and former dean of the government-run JJ Hospital.
Dr Daver said the idea of paying for healthcare gained acceptance with the rise in disposable incomes and the availability of private health insurance.
The overcrowding at public hospitals is not surprising. Most of the city’s public health facilities were built between 1950 and 1980, for a population of 52 lakh-72 lakh. Now, the same facilities are meant for 1.4 crore people, resulting in one public hospital bed for every 3,000 Mumbaiites — the ideal ratio is one bed per 550 population, according to World Health Organisation norms.
Roughly 1 crore patients are treated in the Out Patient Departments at BMC hospitals in Mumbai every year.
Experts believe public-private partnership is a promising solution. The BMC has taken a step in this direction by partnering with a private company to set up the Seven Hills Hospital in Marol-Maroshi. The upcoming 1,500-bed hospital will have 300 beds reserved for BMC patients.
Dr Ravindra Bapat, who has been associated with KEM Hospital for 50 years, says the public health system needs “more funds and some attention from those [politicians and bureaucrats] who’ve stopped using it”. Whether this system works or not, only time will tell.
This four-part series, starting today, will look at the major issues in the public health system, and the plight of residents of some suburbs with almost no reliable public health facility.