Medical education in India and most parts of the world is a long and arduous process. It takes nearly 12-15 years after high school to create a well-rounded super-specialist who can be considered an expert in his field. The super specialist can be a heart surgeon, an intensivist or an anaesthetist. Each specialist is a master of his domain with some working knowledge of other specialities. Then there are other professionals who qualify to use the term “Dr” as a prefix. This would also include the practitioners of ayurveda, homeopathy, siddha and unani, the so-called indigenous medicine systems.
Covid-19 is destroying entire populations in various parts of the world and qualifies to be called as one of the biggest health crises of our lifetimes. However, among this motley crowd of doctors, there are only a few of us who are actually capable of treating a disease like it. This would include physicians, infectious disease specialists, pulmonologists, critical care doctors and anaesthetists. Public health professionals also play a major role in arresting the spread of the disease.
Heart surgeons, cancer surgeons, laparoscopic surgeons (like me) and brain surgeons surprisingly do not figure in the list. This simple fact somehow eludes the editors of newspapers and TV channels. It really was shocking to see a celebrity heart surgeon suggesting that all medical students including untested young men and women from degree mills abroad be drafted into medical service immediately without exams. Untrained, untested students with no working knowledge of ventilators and personal protection would cause more harm to patients and themselves. Another suggestion was to create 2,000 ICU beds with piped oxygen over a single weekend in all major cities.
A different game
Any public health expert would scoff at the possibility of installing piped oxygen over a single weekend in aging public hospitals which have been starved of funds for long. One leading government hospital in a southern state has assigned an entire building for Covid-19. It appears sparkling clean but insiders know that it’s just great optics. There is absolutely no oxygen supply at all. The building was apparently scheduled for demolition in two months.
These specialists are achievers in their fields and giants in their domains. But Covid-19 is a completely different game. Humble anaesthetists who are the backbone of all operating theatres and critical care units – the men and women who handle ventilators with the ease at which my mom makes dosais are strangely absent from TV debates and newspaper articles. These men and women are busy at the frontline and we have specialists from other domains usurping their rightful spaces. Celebrity status should not be the criteria to be labelled an expert.
I have suggested a set of guidelines that news outlets can use before calling experts to give opinions.
1. Is the doctor a medical doctor? (MBBS not ayurveda/unani/siddha/homeopathy)
2. Is the medical doctor a pulmonologist/anaesthetist/infectious disease specialist/critical care specialist?
3. Is the doctor a public health expert? (When commenting about policy issues)
4. Is the doctor actually treating or supervising the treatment of Covid-19 patients?
5. Has the doctor demonstrated a commitment to upholding scientific principles in the past?
Ideally only a medical professional who fulfils the above criteria, is qualified to give expert opinions. In an era, where celebrity doctors and their opinions are venerated, it becomes the responsibility of media outlets to ensure that the right information is disseminated.
Vinayak Rengan is a general surgeon and entrepreneur from Chennai who founded the surgical education platform Surgtest and also co-founded the international fellowship medium Fellowship Central.