The Art and Science of Diagnosis

A professor from Ohio State e-mailed me the article with the deceivingly understated subject line of all-lower case “fyi.” The Hindu write-up’s headline, though, didn’t mask the shocking contents: “Appalling condition of primary healthcare services” it read. (1) Short and potent, it described the lurid details of a study carried out across the health sector in India, rural and urban, private and public. The details showed a fundamental lack of ability by medical professionals to diagnose even the most common conditions (asthma and dysentery, for example) or ask the most basic questions (whether there was “pain radiation” for an unstable angina). The result was a low rate of diagnosis, whether it was in rural Madhya Pradesh or Delhi.

Overall, healthcare providers provided the correct treatment only 30.4% of the time. (2) Even worse, 41.7% of the time the clinics provided unnecessary or even harmful treatments for “patients” that the research study trained (“from the local community”, the article notes). Many providers, even in public clinics, were unqualified. Medical guidelines and treatment protocols were followed at low rates; providers only asked 33.7% of the recommendations. In Madhya Pradesh, doctors spent 3.6 minutes with patients, while Delhi medical professionals spent a marginally better but still terrible 5.4 minutes. For reference, the Medical Council of India recommends doctors spend at least 10 minutes with each patient. (3)

The article highlighted tough facts that Calcutta Kids has been tackling for years. Through our experiences with the health clinic, we’ve worked to combat the norm of primary health in India: brief, non-comprehensive visits and a disregard for protocols and checklists. We’ve uploaded to the resources section of our website our child health World Health Organization’s IMCI and IMPAC-based Child Health and Pregnancy and Maternal Health protocols and checklists which our doctors are trained and demanded to use. Our two health clinic physicians, Drs. Pal and Sen, work with our management staff to ensure that the protocols we have provided them matches their process for diagnosing patients. See the above-mentioned resources below:

Child Health Protocol (0-2 months)
Child Health Checklist (0-2 months)
Child Health Protocol (2 months to 5 years)
Child Health Checklist (2 months to 5 years)

Pregnancy and Maternal Health Checklist and Protocol

It’s an important process that Calcutta Kids has to do to ensure our beneficiaries get not just quantity but truly quality care. It hasn’t been an easy process to bring in this cultural change into our clinic over the years, but it’s a necessary one. In addition, the creation of standardized protocols ensures a consistent level of care that our beneficiaries can expect, regardless of personnel changes. As Atul Gawande noted in his Harvard Medical School commencement, it’ll require an understanding of a team of healthcare providers- a “pit crew” that includes our health workers- not just the lone cowboy physician:

“The work is rooted in different values than the ones we’ve had. They include humility, an understanding that no matter who you are, how experienced or smart, you will fail. They include discipline, the belief that standardization, doing certain things the same way every time, can reduce your failures. And they include teamwork, the recognition that others can save you from failure, no matter who they are in the hierarchy.” (4)

Many rightly criticize the low rates of spending on health per GDP in India, ranking 171st out of 175 countries according to a WHO study. (5) But the situation is even grimmer: it is not enough to just increase spending, build more primary health centers or even to write diagnostic protocols at a national level. The groundwork of implementation at a doctor to patient level must be accomplished. At our health clinic, we work on this ground level to make sure that provision of the highest level of primary healthcare is a reality for the mothers and children of Fakir Bagan.–Pranav Reddy

Citations:

  1. Appalling condition of primary healthcare services. The Hindu. R Prasad. December 6, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/health/medicine-and-research/appalling-condition-of-primary-healthcare-services/article4167677.ece on Jan 1, 2013.
  2. In urban and rural India, a standardized patient study showed low levels of provider training and huge quality gaps. J Das, A Holla, V Das, M Mohanan, D Tabak, B Chan. Health Affairs. December 2012. 31(12):2774-84
  3. MCI wants docs to spend at least 10 mins with each patient. The Times of India. K Sinha. September 1, 2011. Retrieved from http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-09-01/india/29953546_1_opd-patients-doctors on Jan 1, 2013.
  4. Cowboys and Pit Crews. The New Yorker. Atul Gawande. May 26, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/05/atul-gawande-harvard-medical-school-commencement-address.html#ixzz2H02jhJMO on Jan 1, 2013.
  5. World Health Statistics 2011 Report. World Health Organization (WHO). 2011; 127-139. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/whosis/whostat/2011/en/index.html on Jan 1 2013.

One Response to The Art and Science of Diagnosis

  1. great note of important insights – your protocols, if followed will assure CK beneficiaries do far better even seeing a CHW than the average Indian seeing a doctor. Less is almost always better! Jon

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