Indian doctors seen as architects, lifeblood of Britain’s National Health Service
As Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) completes 70 years, Indian doctors who worked for it over the decades are being hailed not only for their contribution but for their central role in its development as “architects” and “lifeblood”.
Set up in 1948 to provide free medical services to all, NHS faced a major shortage in the initial years (as it does now), particularly in areas considered “inner-city” and populated by working class people, where white British professionals were loathe to serve.
Educated under a medical syllabus influenced by the legacy of the British Empire, Indian doctors came to the UK to train and settled to pursue careers in the NHS. Their role is the focus of a new exhibition at the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) from Thursday.
The latest figures show there are 25,711 doctors who gained their qualifications in India, the largest country group in the NHS from outside the UK. There are as many as 1,724 doctors on the register with the surname Patel.
A spokesperson for the General Medical Council, which registers and regulated doctors in Britain, said, “The medical profession in the UK relies on the expertise of doctors from overseas. Their contribution and the diversity of experience they bring are invaluable.”
Indian doctors are also reflected in popular British culture, for example The Indian Doctor, BBC’s five-part television drama set in a south Wales mining village in the 1960s, which starred Sanjeev Bhaskar and Ayesha Dharker and was telecast in 2010.
Julian M Simpson, author of a book on doctors from India and South Asia, said: “Doctors from the Indian subcontinent were not just contributing to the NHS, they were its very lifeblood. We should acknowledge they were among the architects of the NHS.”
Described as groundbreaking, the RCGP exhibition draws on archival research, photographs and oral history interviews with 40 general practitioners who moved to Britain from South Asia during the early period of NHS.
RCGP president Mayur Lakhani said: “General practice in the UK would not be what it is today without the hard work, innovation, and courage of our predecessors...Indeed, without them, our profession and the NHS might not even exist at all.
“Not only were they doctors, but they became highly valued members of the communities in which they practised. Whilst many faced incredible challenges, our exhibition also documents the overwhelmingly positive and lifelong relationships they forged with their patients.”
But the story of Indian doctors in Britain has not always been one of celebration. There have been numerous cases of discrimination and worse, many of them were unable to enter or progress in high-profile medical streams.
The exhibition acknowledges they often faced racial discrimination and, for women, sexual and racial discrimination, when applying for jobs.
Shiv Pande, who gained his medical qualification in Indore and moved to the UK in 1971 to work in cardio-thoracic surgery at the London Chest Hospital, said: “Due to discrimination, I couldn’t get further in cardio-thoracic surgery and had to move into general practice. But it was a nice move as I could do more for my patients.”
Simpson, on whose book the exhibition is based, said: “The NHS evolved during its first four decades into a system based around general practice and primary care. By becoming family doctors, South Asian doctors prevented a GP recruitment crisis.
“It’s important to also remember that the NHS was established to make healthcare accessible to those who could not afford it. And for millions of people, particularly in working class communities across Britain, accessing that care meant going to see a GP from the Indian subcontinent.”
Besides Pande, RCGP honoured six senior doctors from south Asia at the exhibition launch event, including Has Joshi, KS Bhanumathi, Krishna Rao Korlipara and Sri Venugopal.
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