How The Journey Began
In the early 1980s, as fresh graduates from Mysore Medical College in southern India, we were brimming with a zeal to "cure the sick" and "change the world." We had an ideal of evidence-based, rational, ethical and equitable health care and set out to serve rural and under-served communities which included displaced forest-based tribes. In the initial years, with the naivety of the inexperienced, we believed that by correcting the dehydration of the doe-eyed six-year-old Mare and giving her a free course of antibiotics, we had made health care accessible to her. Much to our dismay, within a month, Mare was back in the outpatient clinic, with diarrhea all over again and looking thinner than ever. We realized that it was a losing battle to keep her healthy as long as she continued to drink water from the same contaminated stream, live in unhygienic surroundings, and eat only the paltry meals that her family could barely afford. We gradually began to connect these living examples to what our preventive medicine text books had stressed all along—there are many social determinants of health which, if left unaddressed, do not permit realization of the vision of health for all.
Such instances continually pulled us out of the hospital building and into the villages and tribal hamlets. We discovered that our textbook of Preventive and Social Medicine (Park, 1986) (P&SM as we used to call it), was our most valuable possession. [End Page 106] We devoured the descriptions of national health programs, sanitation procedures, water treatment protocols, and maintenance of cold chain for vaccines with a completely new perspective. We discovered the Manual of Basic Techniques for a Health Laboratory, (World Health Organization, 1980) detailing how to set up a laboratory with low cost, reliable and simple methods. We learned to drive a jeep to haul supplies and patients. To step up the level of clinical care, some of us pursued post-graduate programs and equipped ourselves to provide more specialized care too. It has been over two decades since we embarked on this journey. We have encountered a variety of perplexing dilemmas with no clear solutions. We have sometimes been compelled to adopt health practices that were not really evidence-based, seemingly irrational, inequitable and even downright unethical. This narration describes only a few of our thousands of cases, and hopefully conveys our periods of self-doubt, despair and hope, as well as, the challenges we face to reconcile with the difficult choices we are forced to make every day.
Unforeseen Challenges in Saving Mothers and Children
High maternal and child mortality rates have been one of the most disturbing aspects of the health care scenario in rural India. To ensure immunization of all children, health workers with vaccine carriers go from village to village and hamlet to hamlet to reach those infants that would have missed visits to the immunization clinics. Our grass-root workers facilitate these visits by identifying households with such children. Occasionally, they encounter families who spirit away the infant into the adjoining woods as soon as the health worker is seen approaching, and blandly proclaim that the child is not at home. Despite reassurance and counseling about the safety and necessity of the vaccine, their apprehensions and misconceptions are insurmountable. What is the extent of the responsibility of the health worker? Is it ethical to hunt down the child and force the administration of the vaccine in view of the public health gains, besides the child's welfare?
A few months ago, a pre-term neonate was admitted to our hospital, but worsened and needed referral to a higher centre in the city. The family refused to go despite repeated persuasion and detailed explanation about the technical limitations of care at our centre. From the family's perspective, the variety of social, cultural, and monetary challenges they would face in the city were themselves limitations for care. We were compelled to retain the baby and continue giving the best care we could.