Why Do Indians Hate Visiting Doctors?

Social Commentary

Why Do Indians Hate Visiting Doctors?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Crocin se theek ho jayega!” exclaimed my dad cheerfully, as we stepped out of the doctor’s clinic with a list of tests prescribed for him. He’d had a terrible fever for days and it had taken hours of coaxing from my mother and me, to get to the clinic. We should have known better. Predictably, his distrust in the years of medical experience of even the best doctors in the city meant he was going to ignore the tests and follow his own intuition to treat himself – MBBS degrees be damned. A few days later, he passed out with a falling platelet count and was rushed to the hospital, only to discover he had dengue.

You’d think this would serve as a cautionary tale and he’d learn his lesson. The next time we took him for an arthritis check-up, he was back to his sceptical self. He refused to take any of the prescribed meds, because he “believed” they were harmful to his body. This from a man who smokes ten cigarettes a day and chews tobacco. According to his self-diagnosis, he could just yoga his way out of arthritis.

But my dad is no exception in his mistrust of medical advice. All around me, I see people, men and women, in our family and neighbourhood and offices, who go through life treating doctors the same way this government is treating the Reserve Bank of India – someone to respect but whose advice, warnings, and instructions you completely ignore. We are surrounded by self-proclaimed medical geniuses: From acne to cancer, they always have a concoction or a home remedy or a pill that someone they know took sometime for a similar problem. If the problem can’t be solved by the bottle, there is always the backup babaji-hawan-taaveez plan to ward off the evil nazar.

What gives? What lies behind this distrust of medicine? We couldn’t be objecting to science, could we, considering we’re joined at the hip with our phones and laptops?

When we have such a lax attitude toward routine lifestyle diseases, it becomes that much harder for us to consult medical practitioners over “special” health concerns

I see this attitude not only among older folks, but also with younger people. How many times have you just popped a Combiflam and continued working because a deadline was breathing down your neck? Despite evidence that long-term unsupervised use of it is believed to cause heart disease?

In fact, reports suggest that more than 50 per cent of Indians self-medicate; many use antibiotics of their own accord without a prescription, oblivious to the fact that this recklessness could make the new bacteria in their body eventually resistant to these meds. In pop-culture parlance, it’s like White Walkers turning the dragon that was meant to kill them into one of them. In a country that is already struggling to provide basic healthcare to all, people experimenting with different forms of treatments themselves is a crisis in itself. While one obvious reason behind this is the affordability and availability of doctors (India is reported to have about one doctor for every 921 people and 80 per cent of its population has no medical insurance), what makes us modern, privileged Indians who can afford healthcare so averse to taking appropriate medical help at the right time?

For one, we are likely too busy to care about what happens to our bodies until our predicament is really unavoidable. It’s the “chalta hai” attitude taken to a dangerous extreme. Indian millennials are burnt-out and time-starved from working more hours a week than anywhere else in the world. In fast cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, being able to earn a livelihood is more crucial than life itself – so we just soldier on with our headaches, stomach infections, and swollen ankles, ignoring the pain like we’re Sylvester Stallone in the third act of a Rambo movie. We feel a foolish sense of pride in boasting, “So what if you have a headache! I worked all day in office even when I had a viral infection.” This disregard for personal well-being perpetuates itself in a vicious cycle, where each of us collectively take the other down.

Aside from this idiotic bravado, it doesn’t help that more of us are turning to the Internet for our health problems, researching the fuck out of our symptoms (which inevitably point to cancer). Today, a dozen websites allow you to post your symptoms through your smartphone and someone behind the other smartphone can suggest a treatment, without ever really diagnosing you. Either that, or we simply walk into the nearest chemist asking, “bukhaar ki tablet hai?” and rely on the sound judgement of the clueless boy at the counter, because hell it’s convenient.

This problem is especially compounded with women, socially conditioned to put everyone else in the family before them – there, the level of ignorance is worse. I remember talking to a friend from a well-to-do but traditional Jaipur family about how her mother has chronic diabetes but refuses to go to the doctor, because she always has to tend to the needs of the family. Looking after herself was an embarrassing idea, an excess for her. It was as if by spending any time thinking about her own health, she was somehow failing in her duties as a mother.

When we have such a lax attitude toward routine lifestyle diseases, it becomes that much harder for us to consult medical practitioners over “special” health concerns like gynaecological problems or mental disorders.  

There’s another fad I’ve noticed among millennials – where going organic and eating natural is a new excuse to avoid doctors. I’ve met people who earnestly believe that having an apple a day, keeps the doctor away; people who’d rather drink kombucha over cough syrup; people who apply a dark chocolate and avocado masks to treat their skin allergies than see a dermatologist; who take lavender oil massages to mend the cramp in the shoulder instead of consulting a physiotherapist… the more hipster the solution, the better.

To be fair, our fear of being conned by unscrupulous and careless doctors is rooted in news that is filled with medical scams every other day. Stories about fake licences and rigged medical exams (*ahem* Vyapam *ahem*) have ensured we have a trust deficit, but self-medication is still no long-term viable solution to being healthy. Fortunately, our government isn’t ignoring the issue; there are soon going to be proper regulations in place governing over-the-counter drugs that can be sold without a prescription. Still, it’s time we stopped playing doctor-doctor.