Chest physician Dr Pravin Dumne has just done his rounds of the ICU at Osmanabad Civil Hospital and is now fielding queries from anxious relatives. Two hours into the PPE, he is drenched in sweat, with 22 hours more to go in his shift.
Dumne has 150 Covid-19 patients under him. Since May, he hasn’t been able to take any break except for 12 days when he himself contracted the virus. Norms mandate one doctor per 10 ICU patients, Dumne is handling five times that. “There are times when multiple patients are critical and I can’t be everywhere. I feel helpless. We are losing lives,” he adds.
As another relative complains about the lack of cleanliness in a ward, Dumne says, “I may quit government service once the pandemic is over.”
Dumne isn’t the only one feeling the unequal load as coronavirus cases surge in Maharashtra, particularly its rural areas. The state estimates it needs 19,752 doctors, nurses and paramedics to fight Covid-19. As on September 15, 12,574 of the posts were vacant. Of the 1,700 Class I doctor posts (including specialists) the Public Health Department needs to fill, like Dumne’s, only 538 are filled. In May, Maharashtra was forced to ask Kerala for help. Forty specialist doctors came to Mumbai on a bus, to handle critical patient load until July.
Read Part 1 of this Express series | As September Covid-19 surge sweeps rural Maharashtra, hunt for beds
The shortage is even more intense in rural areas, where urgent advertisements by the government for specialists have yielded little response. In rural Nagpur, as many as 93.6% posts are vacant, followed by Thane at 79%.
The last permanent posting in Osmanabad, an aspirational district under NITI Aayog, was three years ago. It needs 150 nurses and 40 doctors. The state government has been deputing Ayush doctors to civil hospitals. “Not all of them can handle serious patients,” Dumne points out.
He and Dr Tanaji Lakal are the only two specialist doctors for Covid patients at Osmanabad Civil Hospital. Dumne was moved here from the PHC at Samudrawani village, following the pandemic. Dumne and Lakal alternate working for 24 hours continuously followed by one day off. In July, when Dumne got the coronavirus, he had to join back within 12 days, instead of the minimum 14.
In Raigad, 400 km away, Dr Rajesh Salagare has been the only doctor handling the entire rural hospital since March. The three other doctor posts at the hospital have been vacant since 2018. The previous night he was called for a delivery at 2 am; this morning, he was back on OPD duty at 9. “I am just an Ayush doctor. If something goes wrong, I will be held responsible,” he worries.
It’s not just the long hours that deter doctors from rural duty. A government MBBS doctor in rural areas is paid Rs 60,000 per month and is expected to be on call 24 hours, their counterparts in Navi Mumbai get Rs 1.25 lakh, and in Mumbai and Thane, Rs 80,000 per month. Navi Mumbai, Thane and Mumbai mandate eight hours on Covid duty at a time, apart from providing hotel accommodation.
As a chest physician, Dumne could earn up to Rs 2 lakh in urban areas, instead of the Rs 60,000 he gets now. His August salary came only a few days ago.
The 100-bed Covid facility in Ratnagiri depends on Ayush doctors from nearby PHCs. One such doctor, who requested anonymity, says he sees over hundred suspected cases a day. He got his pending salary of Rs 40,000 for four months, till July, only a few days ago. “Everyone calls us corona warriors, but look at how we are treated.”
An administrative officer at Ratnagiri Civil hospital, who is waiting for his pay since July, shows text messages exchanged with seniors. “If the government doesn’t respect us, why will a doctor want to work here?” he says.
Ratnagiri Civil Surgeon Dr Ashok Bolde says the delay in salaries is on the part of the National Health Mission’s state office. Dr Sadhana Tayade, Director of the Directorate of Health Services, however, says, “Salaries are paid on time to doctors.” On why the poor response to advertisements, she says it is because “doctors are scared to work in Covid wards”.
The government has begun tele-ICU services to plug the gap of specialists in rural hospitals of Bhiwandi, Aurangabad, Jalna and Solapur. Physicians in another city monitor ICU readings of patients in rural hospitals and call up on-duty doctors to direct treatment protocol.
But tele-ICU has not reached every rural hospital, nor can it help everyone.
Next: Social stigma a deterrent in Covid testing
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