The Weekly Dose: Doctors are not Gods
Religion teaches us that suffering is an essential part of life; patients come to doctors because they disagree.
Once upon a time, we looked up to doctors as gods. Once in a while, we still do. This deification does a disservice to both doctors and patients, and is a root cause of the many problems between them. Here’s why.
Not too long ago, patients approached a doctor as supplicants, asking him to intervene in seemingly foregone health situations, placing themselves at his mercy (notice how male doctors were synonymous with God, but female doctors were never considered goddesses?). In a matter of decades, good health has metamorphosed from being a benediction to an unalienable right. A doctor in overburdened, understaffed government hospitals is now more like an over-petitioned lesser god, whose numerous patients all clamour for his attention, some of whom think of him as their own, personal medical genie. These health centres contain far too few beds, drugs, and equipment, but Aladdin hasn’t stopped rubbing his lamp.
As a child, I was asked if I was God-fearing, but told that God loves me. Time was when a doctor was an awe-inspiring but avuncular father figure, who held a patient’s, and her family’s collective hand as he guided them expertly through her illness. The doctor made every decision during the patient’s recovery, while the patient accepted every joyful or tragic consequence with stoicism. God – and the doctor – knew best. In this era of self-diagnosis and self-medication, such a paternalistic attitude now comes across only as patronising. We no longer submit ourselves to a doctor for treatment, we consult with him about it.
To an extent, this is a welcome change. The power gap between doctors and patients has shrunk, and the treatment process has become more democratic. No longer can doctors issue edicts that do not take a patient’s wishes into account; increasingly, every treatment plan incorporates a patient’s lifestyle and aspirations. You know what you want from your doctor, and you’re not afraid to ask for it. Allama Iqbal’s famous sher acquires a whole new meaning when you keep in mind this new equation between doctor/God and patient/devotee:
‘Khud hi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer se pehle
Khuda bande se poochhe, bataa, teri razaa kya hai?’
‘Elevate yourself so much that before issuing every decree of destiny
God asks you, ‘tell me, what is your desire?’ ‘
Religion teaches us that suffering is an essential part of life; patients come to doctors because they disagree. Earlier, when someone fell ill, they expected the worst. The smallest improvement caused by the doctor’s limited set of potions and procedures was God’s grace. If they failed, everything was anyway up to God. This belief in fatalism – that whatever was going to happen is going to happen anyway – is declining. But successful medical interventions, which were once akin to divine miracles, are now so commonplace that their outcomes - a salvaged limb, a child snatched from death - are now considered the rule rather than the exception.
While patients can observe these medical miracles with their own eyes, they cannot see, and most often do not understand the complicated, underlying biological mechanisms that make them possible. But when you see or hear of miracles brought about for two or ten or a hundred patients, you can no longer understand the doctor when he tries to explain that a miracle was possible in a thousand other cases, but not yours. If it worked for someone else, why can’t it work for me? God is supposed to love all his people equally, no?
They say you can’t bribe God, but you certainly need to pay a doctor for his expertise. While this has always been the case, what has changed is the number of drugs, surgeries, devices and treatment regimens available to patients. The more advanced the treatment, the fewer are the doctors trained to administer it, and higher climb their professional charges. This is not a tribute that you voluntarily leave in the hundi of a temple or the collection-box of a church; it is a mandatory, fixed fee. When this investment doesn’t yield clinical returns, patients become angry at their gods.
Patients once had blind faith in their doctor’s competence and integrity; now they have faith in second opinions. The stories of patients’ trust betrayed by some unethical, ill-trained doctors have spread like god-sent plagues, and have been amplified into a babel of mistrust. These doctors are false prophets who make false promises, and abdicate responsibility when a calamity occurs, as it inevitably does. Some other old-school doctors haven’t stopped playing God: they proffer advice like commandments, chastise those who don’t follow them and behave like they are doing patients a great favour by listening to their silly little worries. These are false idols and are being cast down.
Sometimes, despite doing everything right, things go wrong, very suddenly. Analysing these events in retrospect may not always be able to pinpoint what went wrong medically, and the patient’s loved ones cannot understand or accept what just happened. This is where science and faith begin to overlap. But increasingly, there is no mysticism left in medicine; patients know (or at least think they know) exactly what is happening to them.
Yet, during a medical emergency, a patient or his loved ones turn to faith, not science, but repose their faith in medicine, not fate. And once again, doctors are thrust upon a pedestal and asked to play God, and be omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible. We need to remember that if doctors believed they could be gods, no doctors would believe in God. But they do.
Doctors are mortals who get to meddle with mortality. They too succumb to physical and mental fatigue, emotions, biases, even boredom – and they make mistakes, none of which is permitted to a god. They can ease pain, dispel doubt, prolong a life somewhat, even save one sometimes – but they do not have the power to breathe life into a person, nor do they possess the gift of keeping the breath of life imprisoned in a person’s body, beyond the limits of fate, science, or whatever higher power you believe in.