What Does it Mean to be a Doctor, Without Borders by Sonal Lal

.In a country like India,  where the humidity only seems to increase and the headaches from honking cars never ends, I figured that six days of experiencing feverishness, uncomfortable stomach cramps, and a loss of appetite was enough to seek professional attention.

The clinic was a small, and the door was opened to a waiting area, which seated about six people. The signs were hand written and the largest sign indicated the price of the general visit: 200 rupees. After waiting a few minutes and without making an appointment, I was asked to come into the other room for my examination and lay down on the medical bed.

The mannerisms and formalities between this doctor and I was the biggest cultural differences that I have experienced thus far. The small talk between the doctor and the patient, which begins almost every clinical visit in the United States, was of a different variety in India. As far as the conversation went, the doctor asked the questions, and I answered.  Patients in the U.S. are used to the doctor easing you into the examination, sometimes with jokes or questions about your family. In this clinic, perhaps because of the amount of people the doctor must see in a day, the interaction was very straight and to the point. I am sick, the doctor wants to help. Also, I have to add that there were two adults from the program with me who were doing much of the talking. In India, there is usually a family member with you taking care of you when you’re sick-this is an important understanding to have of the Indian family dynamic. You may not be independently doing much of the talking to your doctor, especially as a teenager.

Initially, it was frustrating because I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to voice any personal concerns about my health. But looking back at the visit in perspective seemed to make sense- in India, I learned that it was expected of the elders to initiate the talking, while the younger ones were limited to simply listening or responding when appropriate. The doctor is the expert. Also, in a country where something like a stomach ache may be a symptom of something more serious, it’s important to find out what is going on as soon as possible-which this doctor was trying to do. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with a stomach infection. After a day of taking the antibiotics and hydration packets the doctor prescribed, I was feeling so much better.

Proceeding my first medical experience in India, I began to think about how each and every ethnic group needs to be understood in its own. It highlighted the importance of cultural relativism and its significance. According to this concept, individual cultures tend to preach and practice their own set of values. They view and understand this intriguingly complex world we live in, in their own way and based on the ways they have experienced the world.

As someone who plans on traveling internationally as a doctor, the easiest thing to assume is that learning from my qualified medical university will be efficient enough for my medical practices to be effective in all parts of the world. That the United States had a monopoly on “best practice”. But this trip to the clinic was an eye-opening experience that seemed to prove otherwise. If every country has its own people, and every community has their own personal set of guidelines, then perhaps there is no such thing as a single medical practice that can be considered appropriate in all contexts.   I haven’t even started the undergraduate journey, nor have I committed to a medical profession yet, but this incident helped me acknowledge and reflect on the unspoken criteria that internationally-traveling-doctors learn to fulfill.

Perhaps this twenty minute journey meant a lot to me because somewhere in the near future I might be expected to meet these pre-requisites, if I pursue a career in the “doctor’s without borders” program.  I would like to be a good doctor however, without borders.


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