Interview: Sujata Mukherjee

Sujata Mukherjee is now a well known name in medical journalism in West Bengal. She writes regularly on health issues in the column APNAR ASUKH SARAN in the Ananda Bazar Patrika and has written in all major Kolkata newpapers and magazines on the treatment of disease and its prevention. Many are surprised to know that Dr Sujata is not a medical doctor. She has a PhD in Chemistry; however her knowledge of medical matters is so good that she enjoys high credibility among her readers and is also respected by the medical fraternity because of her knowledge. She has written 10 books, her last, POKETE CHIKITSA 1st part and POKETE CHIKITSA 2nd part named EBAR SUNDAR HABO was published in 2011 and 2012 and immediately climbed to the best seller charts.
Sujata and I go back a long way. We have been friends since 1990, if I remember correctly, when she first came to the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Medial College Hospitals where I then worked to write a story about it in BARTAMAN news paper. We also collaborated in several articles in the Telegraph and the Statesman in those days. Subsequently, of course, she kept on at her profession and I immersed myself in surgery, but our friendship has remained intact over the years. We do not meet very often, but do keep in touch. She agreed to be interviewed for Reflections. I hope that you will enjoy reading what makes her tick.

1) Please tell me something about your background. Where were you brought up? Where did you study?
I was brought up in Barrackpore, so I went to the Barrackpore Girls School and subsequently to the Lady Brabourne College where I graduated with honours in chemistry and finally to the Science College where I did my postgraduate degree and my Doctoral thesis.
2) You wear two hats. You are probably West Bengal’s leading medical writer and you work in Hospital Administration. Which is your first love? How did you come to these professions which are far removed from your educational background?
No no, I don’t consider myself as a leading medical writer in WB. Writing on health is my passion, so I write. It is simple. I cover a very tiny part of medical journalism and I am happy with that as it helps common people.
There is no question, my first love is Writing; specifically medical writing. I came to medical administration by accident so to speak. I was offered a job at the Lifeline Nursing Home which I took up as a stop gap arrangement as I did not have any specific job at that time. Around that time I had resigned the job of part time lecturer in Bethune College, as I have realized teaching may not be my cup of tea. But I liked the work of Hospital administration and it also brought me in contact with doctors who helped in my writing. And I have stayed on!

3) As a hospital administrator, can you tell us something about challenges that you face?
I now run a Hospital which basically caters to the middle and low income group. (Saviour Nursing Home). Running a low cost hospital is always a very big challenge now-a-days. What ever may be the income per bed, we have to keep round the clock trained Medical Officers, Dietician, Sisters, trained ayahs , sweepers and front office staff. Maintain a good marketing team is also expensive. So at the end of the day the profit margin is so very little that the owners may lose interest to run these type of hospitals. On the other hand unmanageable expectations from the clientele are also a big issue. They expect services at such low costs that it is well nigh impossible to meet their expectations. Managing our doctors is another big problem. Their expectations, whether financial or infrastructure wise are difficult to meet. It is very difficult to have all the best equipment but charge the prices we do. This leads to many complaints from the doctor community which uses our facilities.

4) You have no doubt tracked the recent happenings in AMRI. What is your opinion on the Fire incident? Do you agree that the Directors should be held criminally responsible for the tragedy?
The problem was that no one on the ground took ownership of the crisis, but waited for instructions from above which came late.
Having said that, I do not think, however, that it is justified to slap criminal charges against Directors who were uninvolved in the day to day administration.

5) Do you think that in these days of insurance based payments, individual doctor owned small hospitals have a future? Or is the future totally with large corporate structures?
Small hospitals may have a future, but to survive, they have to work very differently from corporate entities. For instance, it is now common practice to outsource many of the hospital services such as cleaning, catering and so on. This is convenient, but costly. These functions have to be carried out by the hospital administration if they are to cut cost and make even a small profit at the end of the day. The pharmacy has to be utilized to the maximum to cross subsidise other areas of hospital function.
To tell the truth, it is very difficult to run small hospitals. Our hospital runs because the owner has accepted that we bring in minimal profits.

6) As is evident from some of your books, you do think about common people who do not, or have limited access to a doctor. How do you think the great divide between urban and rural medical facilities can be bridged?
I cannot agree that the divide is entirely urban and rural. It is rather a rich poor divide. Even here, close to our hospital, at Rajabajar, there are so many families which cannot access medical care, simply because of costs, the doctor’s fees as well as the medicine costs. I personally feel that much of the medical needs are for minor ailments which can either be prevented, or treated by simple home remedies. This has been a recurrent theme in my writings and I firmly believe that proper health education and information about home remedies can help many poor people to save money spent unnecessarily on formal medical care.
7) Tell us about your writing. When did you first start writing? How did you become so successful in medical journalism? Did you have any mentors who guided you?
When I was doing my PhD, both my children were very small and needed a lot of looking after. My thesis was also not going well and I was really stressed out. It was at that time that I indulged in my hobby of writing about medical matters. I had always wanted to be a doctor; however this never worked out. So I began to write about medical matters. I never thought of publishing it then, I used to write for my own satisfaction. I happened to come in contact with Samarjit Kar who was an important figure in the Science Congress Association . He encouraged my writing and urged me to try to publish the, I wrote for Gyan Bigyan , then for Puroshree, a magazine published by the Calcutta Corporation. This really gave me a boost and I was then able to publish in Bartamaan , Aajkaal and then , of course the Ananda Bazar Patrika.
I have been given a lot of help in my initial work by Samarjit Kar; Jugal Kanti Ray of Aajkal. Maitrayee Guha of Bartaman also helped me a lot. Cardiac Surgeon Tapas Ray Chowdhury taught me a lot as well about the basics of writing on medical matters.. When I began to write in the Ananda Bazaar , Gautam Bhattacharyya helped me to refine my writing style and made me a more mature writer.

8) When did you first think of writing a book? Which was your first book?
The offer came all of a sudden. In October,1999, I received a phone call from Gautam Bhattacharya, whether I want to publish a book or not. Two days after Mr Shankar Mondal from Deep Publisher, came with a Rs 10,000 cheque and got my signature on an agreement. So I started writing. Name of the book and topic was suggested by Gautam. So I wrote my first book “ Dactar ke taka na diye”

9) What are your future plans on the writing front?
I have many plans. First I have to complete POKETE CHIKITSA series. I have published two books in this series, I have to publish 5 more, which will talk about each and every disease and methods of preventing and treating them not only by allopathy, but also by homeopathy and ayurvedic methods. Diet and lifestyle modifications is also an important part. I have started another series of books on home remedies and emergency management named, NIJER ASUKH NIJE SARAN. 1st part of the book is in press and already we have received an order of 5,000 copies from a renowned chain. I have planned this as a series of just five important points which will enable the reader to understand the disease, learn how to prevent it and give tips on its treatment. . I feel that this series of books will really help the patients we were talking about earlier who cannot access medical care.
The third series on progress is on emotional health named, AMAR MAN KEMON KARE. The 1st part is in press. 2 more parts I have to write. It deals with management of common emotional problems like anger, frustration, despair, jealousy, possessiveness and so on.

10) What about your plans as a hospital administrator?
I hope to continue my work as a corporate hospital branding consultant, and, of course, to run the Saviour Hospital, which has been my baby for a long time.
11) As a woman in what is still often a man’s world, do you feel handicapped? Or do you think being a woman is an advantage?
I believe It can be an advantage if one is prepared to surrender one’s self respect. Many people unfortunately do this. I do not want to speak any further on this.
On the other hand, it can be a great handicap as women always have to work extra hard to prove themselves in a man’s world.
Do you know what; I remain busy with my work and just ignore other things. I don’t believe in losing my self respect for any advantage. Because at the end of the day I am answerable to myself and to my children.

12) What advice would you have for somebody who aspires to be medical writer?
Decide what you want to write on, is it health policy? Is it disease? Is it reporting on health matters? Work hard and analyze your own writing very carefully.
13) Any personal details you would like to share?
As I have mentioned earlier, I was disappointed not to be able to become a doctor. However my elder son has now qualified to be a dentist and my younger one is studying medicine. T his is source of great satisfaction for me.


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