Quacks and healers

In the earlier years of medical school, my sister would look at me and ask “are you a real doctor, jia jia?” I would answer, “no, not yet, I’m a fake doctor!” As she grew older, she understood the joke, and we would happily laugh about fake doctors, with witch-like laughs. So that’s part of the story, behind the name Quackling.

But it’s disturbing what fake doctors actually do. When I saw this video about public doctors, quacks, and spiritual healers in India, I was disturbed that I had associated myself with quacks at all.

“I passed my twelfth grade exam but got no job: so I became a doctor.”

He says, as he confidently pulls out his “certificate”. Which is actually his high school transcript. It’s very strange, to see quacks readily admit that there is a huge difference between themselves and the “big doctor” with a real MBBS. Worrying too, to see quacks thrive especially amongst the rural and the poor, who could not afford standard hospital care with its associated expenses on tests and treatments. To see how they dish out a day course of gentamicin to manage any type of diarrhoea, or how they give some combination of antibiotics, antimalarials and steroids, with or without an indication.

“I have heard that people here think that getting a “bottle” (IV fluids) is essential.”

Even for a simple cough. Drips and injections – the more invasive the better. Quacks frequently use these treatments, with no proper facilities to sterilise the equipment they reuse amongst patients.

It seems to me though, that even in your modern day hospital, some patients who er… don’t appear to have genuine issues, feel obligated to experience an improvement in their symptoms, as soon as they receive something invasive. Would it be ethical to study the difference between the injectable version of say, an antiemetic, to an equivalent oral dose used for patients in the emergency department? With a placebo of each type too. Hmm.

“When there’s vomiting they think an evil shadow has been cast! They don’t see that it’s a disease. Bhopaji (the priests) can’t help them!”

Apart from seeking quacks, people at these villages also go to priests for healing. Recently too, I had been reading accounts of Jesus’ healing in the gospels, including those in Matthew 8-9 where he heals the sick and drives out demons. I have no experience in the matter, and am not dismissing spiritual forces. But thinking about this does make me think, how would you go about classifying one set of symptoms as being “demon possessed”, and another as a physical illness such as epilepsy, or a mental illness like schizophrenia. And how accurate could that distinction ever be? Or do you attribute all illness to some dark force? I’m not sure if that is reasonable, even if we accept that disease and suffering are consequences of sin in the world (I mean the general sin of mankind, rather than an individual’s particular sins.)

“Without faith, you have nothing.”

Answered the priest’s assistant, when the interviewer asked him about how healing worked. It was interesting that he talked about the need to believe, and that healing would be ineffective if you just came to test him out. In the gospels too, Jesus too at times withheld from supernatural works due of the people’s unbelief (Matthew 13:54-58), attributed healing to faith (Matthew 9:20-22) , or a lack of healing to faithlessness (Matthew 17:14-20).

Of course, who you have faith in matters – whether that’s in God who has authority over all things, over life and death and everything inbetween, or whether that’s in the priest who claims to cast out demons (but who, even from the accounts of his believers, is not particularly successful at bringing to fruition his claims to heal). Still, the parallels and all the questions it raises about the interplay between faith and healing is perplexing indeed. May God give us wisdom, to understand.


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