Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Public policy quacks

Another interesting presentation at ARSICON 2007 was one by Dr. Meenakshi Gautham on her study on the treatment of reproductive tract infections by informal medical practioners in the Tehri Gharwal region. I won’t attempt to summarise her findings here. I will only concentrate on the finding that almost all the practioners had no concept of the infectious etiology of urethral and vaginal discharge yet almost all prescribed antibiotics for such symptoms. When the actual rate of infection was calculated among symptomatic patients who were prescribed antibiotics it was found to be quite low (3-5% if I remember right). Most patients who got antibiotics did not need them.

These practioners were using a different theoretical framework, a traditional humoral understanding of the body to explain their patient’s symptoms. However they then proceeded to use antibiotics which have been developed using a modern biomedical framework. Since a formal medical education was inaccessible to them due to reason of money and language they had no means understanding this biomedical framework and this in turn made their prescription practice excessive and dangerous. Although it was not brought out in the study, they were possibly also aware of the fact that prescribing more antibiotics meant more profits and more incentives from pharmaceutical reps.

The traditional humoral understanding of the body is common sense knowledge in the region where they lived and worked. Most informal medical practioners learn what drugs to prescribe by careful observation of other doctors and it is hence not unnatural that they attempt to fit such observations into the theoretical framework in which is most familiar to them. They invest antibiotics which properties of ‘heat’ and ‘cold’ just like traditional medicines.

What I found interesting was the parallels that can be drawn between such a scenario and that of doctors writing health policy at state and national level. A large number of doctors in government committees are super-specialist clinicians with years of experience operating within the modern biomedical framework. Modern medical education ensures that even those who have spent years seeing patients from poorer, rural communities have no theoretical basis for understanding the social, cultural, economic and political realities of their patients. Those with post graduate degrees in Community Medicine don’t fare much better. It is quite likely that the surgeon mentioned in my previous blog entry might sit on a committee looking into ‘Tribal Health in India’.

Most assumptions on which policy is then based stem from common sense and years of observation. We have already seen how this can be a dangerous practice, since a large number of observations do not automatically mean that one has even begun to understand even the basics of the underlying phenomena. Indeed the resultant policy prescriptions produce results that seem similar to those of informal practioners. A lot of money gets spent, a few people get better and a large majority remain as they are.

If we are to ensure that policy decisions are made on rational grounds then we need to ensure that those making such decisions have both a deep theoretical and practical understanding of the social and political reality they are attempting to affect. Given the choice we would not entrust our bodies to a surgeon if we realised that he either didn’t have the necessary theoretical understanding of the human body or the requisite amount of practical experience. Policy interventions which affect the lives of millions of people deserve no less.

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