Whenever 59-year-old P C John enters Tata Memorial Hospital, patients from Mizoram surround him, with their medical files and questions about their ongoing treatment. John is the only official appointed by the government of Mizoram to aid patients who travel to Mumbai for treatment. With Mumbai fast growing as a favoured medical hub, hospitals are seeing a need for more translators to overcome the language barrier between doctors and patients.
John (59) is from Kerala but in 20 years of service, has become fluent in the Mizo language. From 10 new patients per month a decade ago, Tata hospital now receives 20 for cancer treatment every month.
“In Mumbai, doctors have no time to explain slowly. My role comes here,” John says. From explaining the treatment procedure to the side effects to translating patients’ doubts for doctors and vice versa, John handles the entire Mizo patient influx in Mumbai.
From outside India, Mumbai receives patients mainly from West Asia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, as it offers affordable health care. The Tata Memorial Hospital records show that 688 Bangladeshis came here for cancer treatment in 2016.
According to the state tourism and culture department, Maharashtra receives at least 2 lakh medical tourists in a year, a number expected to rise to 5 lakh over the next two years.
At Saifee Hospital in South Mumbai, an average of 10 new patients from West Asia are noted daily. “We have cutting edge bariatric treatment, for which several patients come to us,” said Saifee Hospital COO Huzaifa Shehabi.
At Fortis Hospital in Mulund, 50 international patients visit every month. Apart from two full-time translators, a panel of need-based translators is also frequently approached. “We work with the Health Departments of many countries and this engagement draws patients. We also have a lot of medical students who visit for training and then become reference points for us,” said Fortis zonal director Dr S Narayani.
According to Huzefa Ajmeri, who coordinates treatment of Arab patients at five hospitals across India, the demand for translators is huge. “I don’t just do translation work. We have to manage entire treatment of patients, from their arrival until their return,” he says.
Earlier employed full time at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital where he would coordinate with four patients per day, Ajmeri had to translate medical reports from English into Arabic for West Asian patients to understand. “They do not know about the currency, culture or language. So I have to communicate what the doctors plan for their treatment, and convey their doubts to the doctor,” he adds.
According to him, patients from West Asia, mainly Iraq, Oman and Yemen, visit Mumbai for cancer and pediatric congenital heart diseases. “Translators form an integral part in medical tourism. But the job is not easy,” adds Ajmeri.
Pritikanta Pattnayak helps translate for Bengali, Odia and Assamese patients at Tata Memorial Hospital. He coordinates with at least 15-20 patients per day. “Cancer is a complex disease. A lot of times these patients can drop out if the communication is not good,” Pattnayak says. He used to coordinate with three patients in a month from Bangladesh and Odisha in 2004, which has now risen to four new patients every day.
He remembers that a 75-year-old gall bladder cancer patient from Odisha wanted to return to his hometown. The doctor kept explaining that treatment was essential to save his life. “When I intervened and explained in his local language, he readily agreed to continue treatment. Translators become necessary to bridge the communication gap between the hospital and patient,” Pattnayak said.
Several housewives and college students volunteer with hospitals to translate for Bengali patients. Sometimes, Pattnayak gets calls from patients at night to vent their frustration. Several new patients call him from Bangladesh and Odisha to understand treatment.
“Since 2004, when I first started working, several patients have gone back and passed on my number. I cannot dare to change it,” he smiles. In the past 13 years, he says, he has helped translate conversations of as many as 2,000 Odia and Bengali patients.