One of the many problems plaguing the medical landscape in India are the “quack” doctors who are omnipresent. Every doctor we talk to had countless stories of these phony medical practitioners taking advantage of patients.
Dr. Gandhi told us one story that left me nothing short of flabbergasted. He told us how he had an employee that worked for him for about three years as a hospital tech. After this time, the man thought that he had enough medical experience to open up his own clinic. So, he quit his job with Dr. Gandhi and went off to a rural mountain village to become a “doctor.” Now, if you or a family member has worked in the medical field for any length of time, you will know how easy it is to have a general sense of what to do for common medical conditions. In this case, the man knew enough to be dangerous but not enough to know what he was doing (how could he?!?). If a patient had kidney stones he would know to order an ultrasound, but would not know why or how to interpret it. If a patient felt crummy he would give them a go-to cocktail of some antibiotics and steroids – which would make anybody feel better for at least a few days! However, it is this last story that left me simply amazed at the ingenuity of crooks. At that time this story takes place, many rural villages did not have electricity and many villagers had never seen a refrigerator. So, the especially clever (devious?) man brought a refrigerator and a generator to his little clinic. If a patient would come in with abdominal pain he would take a look at their abdomen and see if he could find any surgical scars. If they had a surgical scar, he would tell them they needed an abdominal x-ray. He’d walk the patient over to the refrigerator, turn on the generator, open the door so they were exposed to the light, and then he’d reach behind the refrigerator and pull out a fake abdominal film that showed a surgical instrument in the patient’s abdomen. At this point he would tell the patient “Oh, here is why you have pain. That silly surgeon left an instrument inside of you. Fortunately, I have a cure! Here, take this medicine for three weeks and come back to see me.” And so, the patients, hoping to be relieved of their belly pain, would take this magical pill and come back to see the doctor in three weeks. He would do a repeat “x-ray” and would reach behind the refrigerator and pull out a different film that showed the same instrument half dissolved inside the patient’s belly. He’d tell them “Look! The treatment is working, keep on taking these pills for another three weeks and you’ll be cured!” And there you have it…….. the extreme lengths that some people go to to make money and take advantage of others. It is nothing short of shameful.
Unfortunately, there’s little that can be done about these quacks practicing medicine. This man with the refrigerator x-ray machine was eventually caught when one of the villager’s children who had left the town received education came back and visited the “doctor.” Being educated, he knew that something was up and reported the phony to the authorities. The fraud was arrested, spent three days in prison, and was released. He packed up shop, moved to a different town, and opened a new clinic where he continued to scam poor villagers all over again. According to every doctor we talk to, this is how things operate in India. There are no real consequences for these phony doctors. They serve a few days in jail and then are released to practice “medicine” again wherever they please. The quacks extend to impersonating pharmacists, chemists, Ayurvedic doctors, and any type of medical practitioners you can think of. The educated people are aware of the problem, however so few rural villagers have enough education to know the difference – they’re illiterate, and a fake, photoshopped degree hanging on the office walls is enough to convince them that the quacks are legitimate.
The whole situation amazes me and infuriates me the same time. I find it hard to believe that some people are so interested in making money and looking out for themselves that they would be willing to inflict such harm on others. The damage the quacks are causing is irreparable and is totally destroying any good will the medical community has with the public. I would think that because the problem exists all across the country that the government would step in to help. Unfortunately, the politicians are too busy looking out for themselves to bother cracking down on the quacks (Note: this is according to the doctors we’ve been working with….. so again, take it with some salt). Really the whole situation is frustrating. I’m optimistic that the increasing level of education and literacy throughout India is enough to help most people recognize the difference between the quacks and real doctors.