Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Speaking of tribal communities

I recently attended ARSICON 2007, the annual conference of a dedicated group of rural surgeons in India who form the Association of Rural Surgeons of India. The association is probably the only group of clinicians I have known who deeply and pragmatically care about the spiraling costs and increasing inaccessibility of basic surgical and medical care in India . For someone who spent five years as an undergraduate becoming increasing disillusioned with the rampant commercialisation at my Catholic institution their company was indeed uplifting.

Over three days I watched videos of extraordinary surgery aimed at minimalising costs for the patient, listened to a number of experienced speakers and generally became more absorbed in the art of surgery than at any given time during my years at medical college.

There was only one presentation that got a standing ovation and it is this presentation that disturbed me the most. A senior surgeon attempted to sum up ‘Tribal Health in India’ by presenting a few pictures of semi-clad forest dwellers, marsamic children and bloody bear attacks. All the pictures were 20 years old and in quite a few the person displaying tribal weapons was another rural surgeon, a fact that was not mentioned anywhere in the presentation. Tribals were portrayed as having ’No gods, no religion and only superstitious beliefs.’ No where was the actual name of the tribe portrayed mentioned. There were no statistics, no indication as to the reasons why tribal communities have been denied access to modern health care.. Scheduled Tribes constitute around 7% of the Indian population and actually are an extremely heterogeneous group. Such an incredibly simplistic representation did them an injustice to say the least.

What concerns me is that barring one or two surgeons, not a single person picked up the fact that the picture painted was crude and inaccurate. Here was a group of people who were not safely cocooned in an elite urban clinical practice yet after all their years in rural service they had no concept of what constituted a fair and representative description of tribal communities and what did not.

Like many other health systems, the Indian system is characterised by the fact that a majority of doctors come predominantly upper class, forward caste communities. A quick eyeballing of the ARSICON participant list will confirm this. If such doctors are truly desirous of understanding poorer, less privileged communities in order to help them then they need a basic theoretical framework in which to situate their understanding, This would be similar to the framework of anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology which helps them understand surgical problems and techniques. Such a framework would include elements of basic sociology, anthropology, economics and political science and would help doctors navigate through the complex socio-political landscapes in which their patients are located.

Adding more theory to the MBBS course may seen to be an unfair demand at first. A quick review of the existing curriculum would reveal however that medical students are anyway burdened with a lot of complex biomedical theory which they have no use for. Why would anyone need to know the exact steps of the Kreb’s Cycle? Or the molecular structure of aminogylcosides? My suggestion is to replace this with basic social science theory instead.

Practicing here in Sittilingi it is ironical that when a young tribal woman is brought in after consuming poisonous plants containing cardiac glycosides I can elegantly describe the exact effect of the toxin on Na-K- ATPase cellular pumps but fumble when attempting to explain the social factors that caused her to attempt suicide in the first place. Neither can I fully explain the fact that pharmaceutical companies have decided that the specific antidote (digoxin Fab fragments) need not be marketed in India, a country where there is a large incidence of such poisonings. Such social and economic understanding would enable me to intervene much more effectively at both the individual and population level instead of merely being able to impotently explain the exact physiology behind her cardiac arrhythmias as she dies before my eyes.

No comments: