Govt tells Parliament India has 8.6 lakhs doctors, but no one really knows

Why 80% and not 90% or 75%? A look at the Indian Medical Registry (IMR) makes it clear why no one knows exactly how many doctors are alive and practicing.

Rema Nagarajan | TNN
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How many doctors does India have? Going by data given to Parliament by the Medical Council of India (MCI), there are more than 10.8 lakh doctors registered. In reality, no one really knows as is evident from the MCI’s own answer that 80% availability has to be assumed from this total number.

Why 80% and not 90% or 75%? A look at the Indian Medical Registry (IMR) makes it clear why no one knows exactly how many doctors are alive and practicing. Here are a few examples of doctors found in the registry.

Dinabandhu Basak, who qualified as an LMF (licenciate of medical faculty) from the University of London in 1895, and registered with the West Bengal Medical Council in 1915; Surendra Chandra Majumder, LMP (licenciate in medical practice) from Dibrugarh University in 1907, who registered with the Assam Medical Council in 1920; Shashi Bhushan Dutta, LMS (licenciate in medicine and surgery from Calcutta University in 1911, registered in 1918 with the Bihar Medical Council; Captain Christian Salvadore, MBBS from Kerala University in 1914, registered with the Travancore council in 1945; Y Sheshachalam, LMP from Madras University in 1916, registered in 1955 with the Andhra Pradesh council.

Over 75,000 of the doctors in the IMR registered before independence or a little after it, some as early as the 19th century as the examples given show. It seems safe to assume that a majority of them are dead or not practicing any more. Yet their names remain on the register and are counted year after year. Repeated directions since at least 2009 to state councils to re-register all doctors to weed out those who might have died, migrated, or stopped practicing have yielded little or no result.

One council with a live register is the Delhi Medical Council. But in this case, the data given to Parliament shows just 16,833 doctors registered in Delhi while the DMC itself says there are over 64,000. DMC president Dr Arun Gupta explained: “We have 48,657 re-registrations and 15,720 first-time registrations. Thus a total of 64,377 doctors registered with our council. So we have a fairly good idea of the actual number of doctors in Delhi.”

Unlike Delhi, MCI says many states like Haryana, Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka have not sent it the registration data for several years. “The State Medical Councils are established under an Act of the respective state legislatures. They are independent statutory authorities and MCI does not enjoy any supervisory role or control over them,” explained MCI President Dr Jayshree Mehta. According to the Indian Medical Council Act of 1956, under which the MCI is constituted, it is the statutory duty of the council to maintain the IMR. The Act also mandates state councils to supply MCI with a copy of their registers after April 1 of each year with all additions and amendments.

As a result, year after year, Parliament is given the same meaningless data without any effort by the health ministry, MCI or state councils to clean it up. Why does this matter? The health ministry calculates the shortage of doctors based on this data. In the age of Digital India and Aadhaar, it seems inexplicable that the government is unable to maintain a database of barely 10 lakh doctors.

Last year, the MCI had tried to initiate a system of Unique Permanent Registration Number (UPRN) for every doctor to be able to track them in cases of medical negligence, to get a clearer picture of how many doctors are practicing in India and to tackle the menace of fake doctors or ones with unrecognized degrees. The fact remains that over 60 years after it came into existence, the MCI has been unable to do the basic function of getting the IMR right.

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