Individualism and India

Posted by Lauren O’Neal

You will inevitably compare your host country to your home country if you study abroad. Sometimes those comparisons are really positive (yes please, Indian food all day, every day) and sometimes they’re not so great (please, no more freezing cold showers).

Reflecting on my trip to India, one of the biggest contrasts I saw with the U.S. was doctor-patient relationships. Don’t get bored yet – I promise I have a point! (I traveled to India to learn about traditional medicine and spent a lot of time with doctors, so this isn’t such a weird thing for me to be mulling over.)

In the U.S., doctors tend to drive the conversation during appointments, and I know I’ve left feeling like I wasn’t able to talk about what I was actually there for. I’ve seriously had to make a list of things to cover when I’m in for a check-up. Otherwise, I end up getting frazzled and forgetting my main objective for the visit. Doctors in the U.S. have an intimidation factor associated with their prestige; it can be embarrassing or rude to question what they are saying.

As someone interested in the medical field from an academic perspective as well as a personal stance as an occasional patient, it is infuriating to feel like my doctor is not hearing me. How can you treat me when you don’t know what’s wrong?

In India, the doctor appointments I observed were significantly more casual and patient-led. Patients would lean on the doctor’s desk and describe all of their symptoms unprompted by the physician. I saw patients in India who were more animated talking with their doctors than people in the U.S. sitting down to chat with their friends over lunch. Often the doctor would only have time to sit and nod while they listened.

I’m not saying that this is the perfect form of the doctor-patient relationship because, for one, I’m not nearly qualified enough to make such a broad statement. I also observed some problems with this system, including patient non-compliance and slim doctor-patient interaction time. But overall, it was incredibly refreshing to see a different, and in many ways, more positive relationship between doctors and their patients.

In the cheesiest way possible, I couldn’t help but feel like the doctor-patient interaction is a great characterization of my experience in India. People have a different connection to each other than they do in the U.S. Though perhaps not friendlier, strangers seem closer knit. I don’t mean to idealize and say everything was kumbaya and beautiful; But I felt like there was less of a distinction between each individual person. That any barriers were a little bit less concrete. Sometimes that experience was bizarre – particularly when personal space seemed impossible to achieve. But it was also awesome. Road rage didn’t seem to exist (which is incredible considering sometimes traffic laws cease to exist as well). And doctors weren’t distant or scary.

Community was almost palpable.

When asked if he would ever consider living somewhere other than India, my program coordinator insisted he would never leave. Why?
“India is the best place to live because people love each other.”

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