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‘Ward No. 5, KEM’ by Ravi Bapat

April 13, 2011

Book review – by Manjiri N Kamat

Ward No. 5, KEM is an elegantly written book by a distinguished surgeon, Dr Ravi Bapat. He is Professor Emeritus, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology at the Seth G S Medical College and the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai. He was formerly Vice-Chancellor of the Maharashtra University and social consciousness, and raises pertinent questions about the medical profession in contemporary India.

The KEM Hospital and the Seth G S Medical College were established by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) in 1926. They were located in the working-class area of Parel in Mumbai. The donors from the Moolji Jetha family had insisted that Indian doctors were to be recruited. This was because preference had been given to British medical personnel when it came to senior positions in the Indian Medical Service. It was Dr K N Bahadurji who had approached Sir Pherozeshah Mehta to urge the BMC to build and manage its own medical college and hospital. KEM soon acquired the reputation of being one of the finest teaching hospitals in Asia.

Bapat studied at the Medical College and specialised in surgical gastroenterology with the guidance of Dr Vasant Sheth. He learned to do certain rare procedures on the oesophagus, the gall bladder, the bile duct, the pancreas and the colon. He developed a new method to enlarge narrowed oesophaguses, which was called ‘endless string’ procedure. Surgical gastroenterology thus became his chosen specialism and KEM became the benchmark for such new techniques in the field.

The book raises many important issues about public health in contemporary India. Since India’s independence, not a single government hospital has been set up in Mumbai. A large part of the responsibility for addressing the health needs of the poor rests with the municipal hospitals; there is pressure to privatise these. In such a scenario, who will provide healthcare for the poor? The super specialist hospitals in Mumbai are outside the reach of these sections of society. The government and municipal hospitals are geared to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If general hospitals are privatised, who will deal with the victims of such calamities? Bapat laments the eclipse of the ‘family doctor’ and expresses concern about the increasing commercialisation of medical practice.

The book will be of immense value to doctors and non-specialists alike. It will help to build up a dialogue between social scientists, medical professionals and policy makers as well as to create public awareness about the state of healthcare in contemporary India. Above all, books in this vein will open a window to refreshing insights into the history of medicine.

Bapat R (transl. S Jaywant). Ward No. 5, KEM. Mumbai: Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd; 2008.

Dr Manjiri N Kamat is Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Mumbai, India.

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