x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

What is missing in health care? The personal touch

Part of the problem is that many medical professionals are in fact mercenaries. Their profession should be a calling for people who honour and respect the human body.

A young mother comes to the clinic with a sleepy, three-month-old baby who has a scalding fever. A temperature this high can cause convulsions and even death in an infant if not treated quickly. To bring the fever down, a doctor recommends bathing the child with cold water. The baby screams and the mother cries; they are both helpless. A five-year-old enters a clinic with an itchy rash; the doctor suggests a blood test. The phlebotomist pricks the child with a needle, but after a few clumsy jabs, the child is wailing and the young, inexperienced technician declares the child a "bad boy". The angry mother complains to the head doctor and her concerns are dismissed, yet it is clear that the supervisor knows that wrongdoing has occurred.

I have witnessed these incidents and others with my own eyes. Part of the problem is that many medical professionals are in fact mercenaries. Their profession should be a calling for people who honour and respect the human body. In too many instances, this is not the case. A disconnected community may also bear some of the blame. Many people don't know which doctors are best. Residents and doctors may not stay long enough to develop personal relationships.

For many people, becoming a physician is the ultimate goal. It is not just a highly prestigious profession but one that can be very lucrative as well. Maybe some people are forced into the profession by their parents or to escape more humble origins. Being a mother, a teacher and a member of a family with many children, I have seen many medical professionals who could be better serving the world as technicians - not caregivers who not only heal the body but should also uplift the spirit.

If you're vomiting, they give you medicine for headache; an asthma attack, take some honey and thyme. If the mother's diagnosis is a hernia, they'll do surgery. "Because you are the mother, you should know," I heard one doctor say. But not all mothers know. There are many doctors who don't ask any questions about medical history, seem bored out of their wits, are afraid of germs and as friendly as a grizzly bear. In some cases, it's purely cultural, where the doctor is given God-like esteem. No one approaches them or bothers them with unnecessary questions like: "What does this illness mean?" or "What will this medicine do?"

As one doctor told me, "I have 12 years of experience; I know what I am doing." OK, you know, but help me understand what is happening to my body. Lately in the UAE, with the introduction of health insurance, the situation has become acute. With so much money to make, clinics are doubling fees so that those without insurance cannot afford care. There are also the government doctors, who are often complacent or so overburdened that just getting them to notice you is almost an honour.

To be fair, there are some good doctors in the UAE, but finding them is like looking for diamonds in the desert. I had one once: Dr Najib, an Iraqi surgeon from London who also taught at the GMC medical school in Ajman. He was the best. However, he sought a better life elsewhere and is no longer here to serve the needy of this nation. According to a survey conducted by the research company yougovsiraj.com, 70 per cent of respondents said that they would seek medical services abroad or, even worse, treat themselves based on internet "research".

Authorities at the Ministry of Health are working on making it better. In the meantime, they should set up a consumer complaint line to help weed out poor medical care providers who give the profession a bad name. There are many in need of medical help who are longing for the day when a visit to the hospital means more than 10 minutes with the doctor, a Dh500 bill and a misdiagnosis. Maryam Ismail is a sociologist who divides her time between the US and the UAE