India has come a long way since 1974, when Manoj Kumar directed the film Roti, Kapda aur Makaan and portrayed how a common man battled for the basic amenities of life- food, clothing and shelter. The country is experiencing a robust economic growth, as signified by the GDP of 6.1% in 2009, (instead of the financial crisis) and the purchasing power of the common man in this country is continuously increasing. Have these changes added something to the list of basic amenities in life- Roti, Kapda, Makaan aur..? Internet? Education? Health? Any more guesses?
Education sector is experiencing the most fruitful and participatory debates these days, with efforts of CBSE, MHRD and Prof. YashPal’s Committee’s report on higher education being brought out in the public domain, but healthcare sector debates, policies and problems yet remain confined to experts of the field. Let me give you another angle- look at the recent social entrepreneurs in the country- what percent of startups/ ventures are in healthcare and/or public health domain? Does that mean Indian healthcare sector has not progressed much or we are not much aware of its progress? I would vouch for the second option. Let’s look into it in detail.
Allow me to ask you some basic questions related to healthcare — What is the life expectancy in India today? Has it increased tremendously from that in 1947? Yes, it has. It’s past 72 now and was 32 then. Do you know the name of UN agency responsible for coordinating international public health? If not, I won’t be surprised. It’s WHO (World Health Organisation), and it was our first Prime Minister Pt. Nehru who gave the idea of starting WHO. Not going too far, please tell who is the current Health and Family Welfare Minister of India? Try to remember when last did you read or heard about any news from this ministry. I believe it is beyond doubt now that increasing health awareness and literacy is one thing that has been regularly neglected by mainstream media and other sources of dissemination of information to the Deewan-e-aam. Health journalism, like science and environment journalism, has not yet ‘graduated’ to the level of political or bolly-wood journalism.
Here is the Devil’s advocate – when we have so many issues to read and debate about, why to discuss about health? There are organizations like NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) and other NGOs to take care of it.
Health journalism is not only about printing precautions for HIV/AIDS, Tuberclosis and other flourishing seasonal diseases. It’s much more than that- informing the public about health concerns and maintaining important health issues on the public agenda. Health journalism and communication drives health literacy, that is defined in Health People 2010 as: “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”.
Can you understand instructions on drug bottles and medical education brochures? You may say: “I read and understand English.”, but health literacy is not simply the ability to read, but the ability to apply your reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, to health situations. Can you decide that the emergency services you are being offered to you when your beloved one is in danger, is actually worth what you are being paid for? Low literacy is linked to higher hospitalization rates, as per Literacy and Health Outcomes (January 2004) report.
Let me get down to some real cases — Once a patient in a serious condition was admitted to the hospital and taken to ICU. The patient’s relatives were not allowed to enter the ICU for three days, and were continuously told that some major operation was going on. They were content to see the patient breathing through the glass pane. What was discovered 3 days later when a senior doctor examined the hospital was that the patient had died and it was only through ventilator that the stomach was being pumped in to make people believe that he was alive. Why was it done when normally, no patient is being put on ventilator for more than 48 hours continuously? You know it.
Another case- a child, admitted in high fever, died and the hospital authorities produced a bill of Rs. 16 lakhs. On investigation into the case, it was found that the injections that costed 12 lakhs in the bill are not used for fever. Let me ask you- if someone (say your sister) is bit by a snake, what is the first thing you would do? Start sucking blood as shown in bollywood films? No. never. Go to Wikipedia? Do what?
Do these anecdotes ring a bell? Do you realize the impact health journalism, communication and literacy can have on our daily lives and even saving lives? “The first step towards change is awareness”, as someone has rightly pointed out, and I hope I have created awareness that awareness about healthcare is very much needed in India.
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student at IIT- Kanpur.