Doctors and clinics in rural India have surgically removed the uteruses of thousands of lower-class women for no medical reason, The Week‘s Swagata Yadavar writes. A reprehensible secret population-control effort? Something even baser: India’s new national health care system provides poor people with free health insurance cards, and corrupt doctors performed unnecessary and life-destroying surgeries on countless women in order to bilk the government-sponsored health care system for fees.
Pain. Fatigue. Palpitation. Dizziness. Indigestion. Nausea. Numbness. Hopelessness.
“I feel sick.”
“I feel sick.”
“I feel sick.”
These words still echo in my ears. They did not come from a dying man or a depressed woman. They were whimpered by scores of ‘normal’ women in India’s rural hinterlands.
The cause lay in two words uttered by their unscrupulous doctors: bacchedani kharaab. These gullible women were told their uteri were faulty, and that they had to be removed.
THE WEEK’s journey through some villages in Bihar and Rajasthan revealed the plight of women-many of them allegedly unmarried-whose wombs were removed as “treatment” for everything, from a simple stomach ache to menstrual issues.
Why? The reason, again, lay in two words: filthy lucre.
Sunita Devi, a 35-year-old labourer of Latbasepur village in Bihar’s Samastipur district, would tell us more. It all started with a debilitating stomach pain, which she had ignored for long. Thanks to the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana [RSBY, India’s nascent national health insurance system], she hoped to finally get proper treatment at a private hospital.
At Krishna Hospital, one of the hospitals empanelled in the rural health scheme, Sunita was told she needed an appendicitis surgery. And a hysterectomy, too.
She underwent both eight months ago. Today, she is feeble. “I often get palpitations,” she said. “I get frequent headaches and gas trouble.”
The mother of five can no longer work in the fields. She now assists at a small shop in the village. The plight of her two sisters-in-law who also underwent hysterectomies is no different.
Three years ago, the RSBY, which entitles families below poverty line to free treatment up to Rs.30,000 [$500] a year, was implemented in Samastipur district of Bihar. It was a godsend for the rural masses. But, in the hands of greedy doctors, it became a cruel instrument to siphon off public money.
The Samastipur scam came to fore when District Magistrate Kundan Kumar found an alarming number of hysterectomies conducted by private nursing homes [clinics]during an RSBY meeting. Of 14,851 procedures conducted under RSBY between 2010 and 2012 in 16 empanelled hospitals in Samastipur, 5,503 were hysterectomies. That is about 37 per cent of all procedures. In some hospitals, more than 50 per cent were hysterectomies, which costs the highest of all procedures under the RSBY scheme.
Kundan Kumar organised a five-day medical camp to ascertain if the procedures conducted were needed. About 2,600 women who had undergone hysterectomy attended the camp. The expert team found 717 cases of unwanted surgery, 124 cases of underage surgery, 320 cases of fleecing and 23 cases of non-surgery.
The magistrate’s report clearly pointed to gross unethical practices. For instance, Anita Devi, 23, who complained of abdominal pain and white discharge, had been operated upon. The expert team commented: “Conservative treatment should have done, hysterectomy not justified.” Similar was the case of Ratna Devi, 40, who underwent hysterectomy for appendicitis.
The report noted that many beneficiaries mentioned by the private hospitals could not be traced. In many cases, the hospitals simply swiped their RSBY cards but never conducted the procedures. There were also instances of procedures being marked against the name of dead people. Worse, some hysterectomy ‘cases’ reportedly turned out to be men!
It was found that many of the private hospitals and nursing homes did not have the requisite infrastructure for the procedures. Only some of them had well-trained surgeons, and in a few cases, operations were conducted by non-medical practitioners.
Subsequently, 12 of 16 nursing homes [clinics]in Samastipur were de-panelled from the list. FIRs[criminal complaints], too, were lodged against five of these guilty hospitals under various sections.\
The involved doctors, meanwhile, were doing their best to cover their tracks. “Dr Thakur from Krishna Hospital often comes to our house asking for our signature on some paper,” said the family of Sangita Devi, 26. Sangita underwent hysterectomy two years ago. Since then, she has been battling frequent spells of weakness, dizziness and headaches. She now weighs just 30kg and can hardly manage any work. She has already spent Rs.5,000 [$85] on medicine and the frequent trips to the doctors are eating away most of what her husband earns. When THE WEEK contacted, Dr Thakur refused to meet us.
Next, THE WEEK travelled to Rajasthan’s Dausa district, where a high number of hysterectomies was reported recently. Guddi Devi, 27, felt sick, though she technically was not. Her bones and joints ached all day. Fatigue bound her to bed. Food did not interest her. And her eyesight was fading. It was nothing but a clear case of premature menopause, courtesy the hysterectomy and oophorectomy she underwent three years ago.
“I had gone to the doctor, complaining of stomach ache. He told me that my uterus should be removed or I would get cancer,” she said. Her family, which owns just a small piece of land, was convinced to go for the “life-saving” surgery costing Rs.16,000 [$275].
“I feel weak all the time. I constantly fall ill, and the stomach pain for which I sought treatment initially persists,” said the mother of three. She has already paid another 110,000 [$2,000] on treatment of these symptoms, often travelling two and a half hours by tractors and buses to the nearest hospital. Now, her 12-year-old daughter, Rinki, takes care of all the household responsibilities. “I am upset about spoiling her education,” added a sullen Guddi.
A bold claim. Rajasthan hospital. Photo CC
Every village THE WEEK visited had similar stories to tell. “I went to the doctor for excessive menstrual bleeding and he advised hysterectomy,” said Angoori Devi, 34, of Sikandara. “She cannot do anything now; she gets easily tired,” complained her daughter, Guddi. The family had to sell their buffalo to pay for the surgery, which gave her joint aches, indigestion, dizziness and fatigue as companions.
“When I was admitted in the hospital, there were about 40 women who were undergoing the same operation,” Angoori recalled about her stay at Madaan Hospital. Activists in the area said as many as 2,300 women in the region have undergone unwanted hysterectomies at private hospitals in the past two years.
An RTI application filed by advocate Durga Prasad Saini of Dausa revealed that of 385 procedures conducted over six months in three private hospitals of Bandikui town in 2010, at least 226 were hysterectomies. And of them, 185 were below the age of 30.
“Is there an epidemic in Dausa that forces women to undergo hysterectomy?” asked Saini, who is also National General Secretary of Akhil Bharatiya Grahak Panchayat (ABGP) [consumer affairs bureau]. “If there was a suspicion of cancer, why was not a single biopsy done?”
What compounds the issue in such villages is the people have no one else to go to. For instance, the post of a gynaecologist had been lying vacant for many years in the community centre in Bandikui despite repeated requests.
Though the centre got a gynaecologist, it wore a dark and deserted look when we visited. “Tell us how we will manage when such a big centre only has five doctors,” said an employee. On the other hand, there are five big private hospitals in the town, doing well.
“The doctors have an understanding with the rural practitioners, who are promised a commission on referrals,” alleged Dr O.P. Bansal, who runs a hospital in Dausa. Even employees at government hospitals act as agents who take patients to private clinics.
Hysterectomy was so ubiquitous in the town that some households had three generations of women who had gone under the knife. Take the case of Sushila Devi of Maanpur village who had gone to Katta Hospital to meet a relative, Guddi Devi, admitted for hysterectomy. Sushila, too, got caught in the trap and was operated upon three days later.
Guddi Devi, a mother of four, was advised hysterectomy to cure body ache. Now, she can no longer work as a labourer. “I feel dizzy when I am in the sun, I cannot lift heavy loads and get frequent palpitations,” she said.
Surprisingly, despite protests and frequent media reports, no action was taken against erring private hospitals. “They have consent papers from the women, so we cannot do anything unless the Clinical Establishment Act is passed,” said O.P. Baherwa, chief medical and health officer, Dausa.
Many FIRs[complaints], too, were lodged in the local police stations against the doctors. Mahendra Kumar filed a case against Madhur Hospital and its owner Dr Rajesh Dhakar, after his 20-year-old wife, Vimla Devi, was subjected to hysterectomy following a failed caesarian section.
The crestfallen childless couple alleged that the police did not investigate the matter properly and threatened ‘action’ if Kumar pursued the case.
The attitude of officials at Dausa was, indeed, sympathetic towards the doctors. “People here attack the doctors and threaten to destroy the hospital, hoping to get compensation,” said District Collector Pramila Surana. Police Inspector Rohitash Devanda said he had not come across any cases against doctors since he took charge 10 months ago. “These people blackmail doctors to gain money. If some patients die during treatment, it does not mean the doctors are at fault,” he said. A clock bearing Madhur Hospital’s name hung on his office wall.
The RSBY triggered a uterus loot in Chhattisgarh, too. Health Minister Amar Agrawal stated that 1,800 hysterectomies were done in just eight months last year. It was estimated that at least 7,000 hysterectomies were conducted in the state over the past three years under the RSBY scheme. The issue, which was noted by the National Human Rights Commission, led to a furore and licences of 22 private hospitals were cancelled.
Down south in Andhra Pradesh, it was the state government’s insurance scheme, Arogyashri, that led to rampant exploitation. Ever since the scheme was implemented in 2007, there was an exponential rise in hysterectomy cases.
Hyderabad-based NGO Centre for Action, Research and People’s Development found that 171 women under age 40 in just one administrative block of Medak district had undergone hysterectomy. About 95 per cent of them had gone to private clinics for treatment and 33 per cent had their ovaries also removed.
A survey by the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samatha Society found that as much as 32 per cent of about 1,000 women who underwent hysterectomy were below age 30.
These case studies and statistics point to deep rot in the health care system. In fact, it is disheartening to see a project like the RSBY-termed by the World Bank as “path-breaking”-being exploited. The RSBY was seen as a prelude to the Centre’s ambitious Universal Health Coverage, which is expected to be implemented under the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-17).
While private health providers bring better infrastructure and quality, they also bring in the risk of greed and exploitation. Without proper monitoring, this kind of public-private partnership is a cause for concern, said Padma Deosthali, coordinator of Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, Mumbai. “For instance, there is no mention of quality of care in the empanelment under the RSBY scheme. Not even basic standards like presence of a qualified medical practitioner and nurse,” she pointed out.
“More than treating health problems, the focus is on procedures and surgeries, which was exploited by private nursing homes,” said Dr A.V. Sahay, medical officer and district head of Bihar Swasthya Seva Sangh. He also stressed on the need for enhancing the public health care system and improving the “reproductive hygiene” of women in rural regions.
Dr Yogesh Jain of Jan Swasthya Sahyog said a major flaw in the scheme was that it did not cover out-patient treatment and, hence, encouraged unwanted hospitalisation. Without strict guidelines, doctors cannot be expected to regulate themselves, he added.
Currently, however, the Central government has directed all state nodal agencies of RSBY that approval from the insurance company concerned is mandatory for hysterectomies performed on women under age 40.
But does the issue end there? The brouhaha shall pass. The scam will turn stale. But what about the innocent women who went under the knives for no reason? Sadly, no one, except a few NGOs, has reached out to them.
“The cost of maintaining the health of a woman who had undergone hysterectomy with medicines and supplements is Rs.18,250 [$315] a year,” said Dr Prakash Vinjamuri of Hyderabad-based Life HRG, which studied the surgery’s impact on women in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh in 2011.
The toll is not just monetary. Loss of vitality and libido affects the psychological and social health of the woman. The study in Medak, for instance, found women whose uteri were removed faced domestic violence over sexual issues, and many husbands had extra-marital affairs. The worst part was the impact on the next generation, as children of these women are forced to quit school to handle household chores.
When and who will compensate for all these losses?
12 Jun 2013