Some unscrupulous ones put a ‘Dr’ before their name. Others don’t, but don’t like being called quacks or barefoot doctors either. They are ok with “rural medical practitioners” and they know they plug a huge gap in the health infrastructure in the country, an estimated 2.5 million of them.
Now, the West Bengal government has decided to start training some 1,00,000 untrained persons in the rural reaches of the state. The first six-month course is to begin from January.
Trainees will not get any certificate, registration or money. But that they have been trained is expected to get more patients and more money.
An NGO in Birbhum was working with the untrained medical practitioners since 2007, training them in “what not to do” to patients. It was a nine month programme conducted by Liver Foundation headed by Dr Abhijit Chowdhury, a senior government doctor.
The Mamata Banerjee government asked an experts-team headed by an MIT economist Avijit V Banerjee to do a social impact assessment of the project. Once the survey gave the idea a thumbs up, health minister Mamata Banerjee gave the scheme the go ahead.
For the last few months, doctors, nurses and other experts have been drawing up a curriculum and teaching module.
Lutfur Rehman Mondal, 53, has been practicing medicine for the last 30 years at Joypur village in Birbhum. He trained with Liver Foundation and says it really helped. “Given the condition of our health infrastructure and the shortage of doctors who don’t want to come to villages, we can provide primary medical care to the villagers,” he says.
A patient at his tiny “chamber” has high fever and a cough. Abdul Kayeb, a friend who brought him there, says he knows the “doctor” is not an MBBS. “But he is always there in the village, the hospital is seven kilometres away and we have been coming to him for years,” he says.
“The difference between an MBBS doctor and the local doctors is a matter of mind and heart. If the heart is good, everything is fine. For us, he is god,” he adds.
One lakh odd gods, as it were, operate in Bengal and Liver Foundation’s Dr Abhijit puts it well. “We are recycling an existing human resource that is unregulated into the health system. By telling them what not to do and what to do, they can become useful, for people, for Bengal and for the country.”
Many MBBS degree holders oppose the idea. Even the Indian Medical Association has reservations. But, till a better health system is in place, Bengal is ready to experiment.