The successful weight loss treatment in Mumbai of the Egyptian patient Eman Abd El Ati has shown Indian medicine at its best. But the administrative handling of the case by the Saifee hospital exposed her to a violent invasion of privacy. Her doctors, while professionally competent, neglected to protect their patient from situations which she and her family found insupportable. When Eman was admitted to the hospital, mediapersons were asked to respect the privacy of the critically overweight woman. However, when she was to be moved to Abu Dhabi for further treatment, a media circus was let loose on her.
The authorities protest that Eman’s family agreed to media coverage at the time of admission. But there is a difference between media interest in treatment — a paper in the British Medical Journal, a science article in a daily — and the human interest story which brought a horde of reporters and cameramen to cover her departure from the hospital. The overweight were forced to perform as carnival freaks just two generations ago. They are still stigmatised and there is an unhealthy public interest with their lives. The hospital should have been sensitive to this, but did not wish to keep the press at bay. The patient was in the thick of the melee that ensued and her sister was pushed around by mediapersons eager to get to her. Besides, a quick getaway proved to be impossible because the occasion had to be graced by the presence of the state health minister.
Domestic patients get competent professional help in our hospitals but are inured to receiving tough love from administrators. However, a foreign case, especially a challenging one like this, should have been handled better. Medical tourism has tremendous potential in India, and patients come in even from the medically advanced nations to take advantage of cost differentials and to avoid their state health bureaucracies. This is a mass market which could keep hospitals solvent and even subsidise the costs of treating the poor. Eman could have turned out to be a poster patient, vivid proof of Indian medicine’s ability to treat a particularly difficult case of the weight-related disorders which are sweeping the world. Though she was treated by competent professionals, the story was denied a happy ending by administrative blunders. A little sensitivity, and a commitment to the interests of the patient rather than the world’s rubberneckers, would have prevented that.
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