Medicine & Doctors · Public health

Understanding Why Exactly Doctors Go on Strike in India

We are aware that on some rare occasions doctors go on strike in some or the other part of India. The general public’s reactions (and apparently even the judiciary’s) to doctors’ strikes are, however, based on extremely idealistic and impractical premises. A resident doctor’s [in India, a ‘doctors’ strike’ is almost always resident doctors’ strike] quality of life is quite awful despite repeated assurances by the government over improvements. With the unique Indian political scenario,their only hope towards some betterment — a strike — is, however, derided by the general public: people from whom they actually expect at least as much sympathy and empathy as the latter expect from them. Here I attempt to bust some myths about health workers’ strikes and hope to arm the common man with some relevant knowledge to form an informed opinion.

Patients die when doctors go on strike.

This is surely the most ridiculous of corollaries. We see sensationalist reporters framing headlines like ‘Doctors strike in UP: 6 patients die’. I would invite the exceedingly erudite reporter to go see the records of hospital deaths on any non-strike day, and on most occasions they’ll find similar death statistics. Perhaps they even know that; what matters to them is sensaltional clickworthy headlines. In fact doctors find it very hard to understand the completely uncalled-for negative reaction of the media to their valid causes.

There are dozens of reasons that can cause the death of a hospitalized patient, but ‘doctors on strike’ doesn’t figure anywhere in the list. Whenever there is a fire in a hospital, or a natural calamity, most doctors and healthcare workers rush for patients’ safety first and foremost without caring about their own: that is just their nature. And even when a section of a hospital’s workers goes on strike, there are always other trained, professional personnel present to take care of critical patients. No one is allowed to die due to negligence.

Doctors should ideally never be allowed to go on strike.

Imagine your next door neighbor playing ear-splitting, deafening, utterly crappy music day in and day out, and you are not even allowed to go to him and tell him to shut it. The only choice you are left with is to suffer. That’s what happens with doctors in India. Remember, for all resident doctors, the government is but a next door neighbor! (In fact if I were the above-mentioned reporter, my sensationalist headline would have read ‘Doctors’ Strike: Apathetic Govt Kills 6 Patients’.)

Almost every day doctors have to encounter the government in all its various (frequently vicious) avatars: corruption, apathy, helplessness to assist genuine patients, archaic rules and laws, nonsensical regulations, MLAs and local politicians making unethical demands, etc. There are endless issues in the healthcare system and doctors bear the brunt bravely and silently most of the time. But every once in a while the govt makes it absolutely impossible for them to work in the status quo, with some explosion becoming unavoidably necessary to shake lethargic authorities. A strike is only a last resort, and if people are seeing strikes more frequently these days, then they better ruminate on how hopeless the administration has become that a last resort mechanism has to be employed more often.

It is a common property of social systems: if unjust rules and laws are not taken back by an authority, then non-cooperation remains the best peaceful way to protest. There is nothing wrong with doctors going on strike for the right reasons, more so because ultimately the benefits trickle down to the only all-important entity of any health system: the patient; satisfied doctors and better facilities always result in better patient services.

Doctors just want pay raises out of strikes.

There are two issues here. Firstly, why should demanding a better pay be considered wrong? And secondly, more medico strikes happen for better security, infrastructure, and quality of life than for better pay.

Everyone wants a good salary, and society and media should now seriously do away with this age-old practice of expecting some kind of ‘ideal’ attitude from doctors. In India even teachers strike for better pay by boycotting board exams. Since the public is so obsessed with the argument that doctors deal with people’s lives so they shouldn’t go on strikes, it’s strange why they don’t employ it when doctors demand better pay: how can they stand someone who deals with their very lives being paid so miserably? Of course life is priceless, and to be honest any pay that a doctor gets is perhaps always going to be ‘inadequate’ by such parameters. Still, everyone has a right to a decent life, be it doctors, teachers or taxi drivers. So when govt apathy forces them to go on strike, we should at least display some empathy.

Secondly, as has been time and again pointed out by doctors themselves and by some sensible journalists (yes they do exist!), the living conditions of most resident doctors in India are totally outrageous. Cramped rooms, filthy bathrooms, pests everywhere, inadequate sleep, sudden patient and politician violence — you name it. The government is aware of all that but does almost nothing concrete. And then when things go out of hand, a strike becomes inevitable. Resident doctors won’t go on a strike unless forced to: toiling hard to see a smile on a patient’s face is much more satisfying than dealing with idiotic, corrupt, selfish authorities.

All in all, people should remember that striking doctors are not a nuisance, but a sign of a healthy, thriving and peace-loving democracy. A sign that someone somewhere is fed up with misgovernance and peacefully exhibiting their dissatisfaction (unlike the shouting and howling you see in the most desecrated temple of India, the Parliament). It would do good for the general public too to shed their skepticism about doctors striking because ultimately the strikes benefit the common man: public hospitals and patients; and because ultimately as citizens we must always extend support to a genuinely dissenting individual, since tomorrow it may be us who are dissenting and in need of support. As someone has said, All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good men to do nothing.

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16 thoughts on “Understanding Why Exactly Doctors Go on Strike in India

  1. Don't you think that we doctors have also failed the general public at some level. Just as more frequent strikes signify growing government apathy, public dissent with doctors signify there is something amiss at our level too.
    The kind of sharp decrease in popularity we have had can not be just due to frequent strikes.

  2. Hi Anukul!
    Well yes this is not about all the activities and mal-activities that docs do. This post only intends to enlighten the general public on the misconceptions that abound wrt doctors' strikes. Still, as an acknowledgement of the fact that bad eggs exist in every system, I inserted that 'bad doctors' statement in the article 🙂

  3. Very enlightening write-up for the common man whose ears are poisoned by the print and electronic media !
    Keep it up !

  4. Interesting how this has turned into a tirade against journalists. From a purely strategic stand point, if nothing else,it might be more productive to work together instead of antagonizing and educating the nincompoops and thick skinned ones. At the very least, while initating a conversation with presumably non doctors, not refering to your audience as complete idiots.

    1. Interesting how this has turned into a tirade against journalists. From a purely strategic stand point, if nothing else,it might be more productive to work together and educate* instead of antagonizing the nincompoops and thick skinned ones. At the very least, while initating a conversation with presumably non doctors, not refering to your audience as complete idiots.

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