Madhuri Kumari, 42, on November 23, 2022, was at her home in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri when she suddenly heard her 12-year-old son Sooraj scream out in pain. She ran to see what was wrong, and discovered that Sooraj had fallen down the stairs. The mother-son duo rushed to Lok Nayak hospital, where emergency staff advised an x-ray. After standing in line at the out-patient department (OPD) counter for over an hour, Kumari was told that the first available date for an x-ray was December 2, 2023.
“At first, I thought it was a typing error and went back to the counter to check, but I was told that the earliest slot for my son’s tests was indeed in December 2023. When I requested them for an earlier date, they told me that this was not an emergency case and if I was in a hurry, I could get the tests done privately,” Kumari said.
Kumari and her son share a plight with anyone who needs to rely on government-run hospitals, where fees are a fraction of private establishments, drawing in a flood of patients that the limited resources of these government facilities are incapable of handling.
In December, HT had reported the case of Gulam Mahabub, 49, who moved the Delhi high court against Lok Nayak Hospital after he was allotted a date in July 2024 for an MRI required prior to an “urgent surgery”. After the court intervened, Mahabub’s surgery was scheduled for January this year.
Such waiting times are normal, with government hospitals in the Capital often handing out dates three-to-four years away for certain tests and scans.
“In my present condition, I don’t even know if I will live long enough to be able to come for my test,” said Kamlesh, who goes by a single name. The cancer patient at Lok Nayak Hospital was given a date for 2024 for an MRI scan.
The wait time at Central hospitals is similar.
Vijayata Pathak, a patient at AIIMS, said: “I was asked to get a pelvic MRI in November last year, but the earliest available date I got was January 2, 2024 at 8am. If a patient is experiencing a serious health condition, their condition will worsen before they are even tested.”
Delhi government officials refused to comment on the state of affairs. Officials from Lok Nayak hospital declined to respond to queries for a comment on the wait time for patients.
Union health ministry officials also did not comment on the matter.
Senior doctors at these institutes said the delays are due to a lack of ample number of equipment and trained staff, as well as the high patient load.
Dr Anuj Aggarwal, vice president of the Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association (FORDA) who works at Safdarjung Hospital, said given the high patient load, doctors often need to triage even routine clinic patients.
“The appointments are given after the screening of the condition of patients. For instance, appointments for ICU patients are fixed automatically. OPD (outpatient department) patients who have come for cancer follow-ups or with a more serious condition are given priority over other patients,” he said.
Dr Subhash Giri, the former medical director of two state-run hospitals — GTB Hospital and Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital — said patients place more confidence in government facilities compared to private hospitals and labs, which leads to a greater patient load in government-run centres.
“Private labs and hospitals are business-driven, but people place more confidence in government centres. They trust the authenticity of government lab reports. This automatically increases the waiting time too. The government has directed, however, that if the waiting time is unprecedented then an investigation has to be called to inquire about the reason for delay and the patient is given the option of getting tested from private facilities,” said Dr Giri, who is currently the medical director at Lady Hardinge Medical College and affiliated hospitals.
A senior doctor from the radiology department at AIIMS, while asking not to be named, said: “Many government hospitals, especially state-run facilities, do not have enough machines to handle the patient load and the process of procurement is long, cumbersome and expensive. How can one or two machines take the load of thousands of patients?”
“Despite getting new machines now, we operate our machines 24×7 to keep up with the patient load. Every day, we handle around 4,000-5,000 samples in our labs,” the doctor added.
A senior doctor at Safdarjung Hospital said while AIIMS has nine CT scan machines and four MRI machines, Safdarjung Hospital has only one for CTs and MRIs each, and a mammography machine is defunct.
“Even if some hospitals procure these machines, they do not invest in its upkeep and maintenance. This means that if a machine stops working, it is not repaired for months and patients have to bear the brunt,” said this doctor, asking not to be named.
Ashok Agarwal, senior lawyer in the Delhi high court who represents patients from the economically weaker sections, said such long wait times are a violation of a patient’s right to basic healthcare.
“The poor are the worst affected by this system. The Delhi government and Centre both have schemes for poor patients to get free tests done in private facilities, but when an EWS (from an economically weak section) patient comes in, they give them dates four-five years from today. What is the point of such schemes? In the same hospitals if the patients are ready to pay, they are given earlier dates. We are fighting several cases for such patients and we are hoping that a larger policy will be introduced to accommodate such people,” said Agarwal.
“The only solution is to improve facilities and get more machines. People from all over the country depend on Delhi for its health facilities and many do not have the means to get expensive tests done from outside. But does that mean they do not have the right to healthcare?” he added.