Madurai-based Dr Swaminathan C runs a Doctors on Wheel programme to take affordable and accessible healthcare to thousands of senior citizens in the city. He shares why he left his life in Canada to start this.
After years of staying in Canada, Dr Swaminathan C — who was raised in the country — came back and settled in India. But it was only while working at a private medical college in Tamil Nadu that he truly understood his purpose, he says.
“I would meet a lot of senior citizens at the hospital. Often, they’d narrate the logistical difficulties they face while shifting from their homes to a hospital bed, especially if they reside on the second or third floors. Many of them are also left unattended as their children live abroad.”
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“So, you have two old parents at home, and if either gets sick, how will the other take them to the hospital? Even if they come once or twice, it is difficult for them to visit hospitals for regular follow-ups,” the 33-year-old tells The Better India.
Dr Swaminathan explains that in European and North American cultures, doctors visit senior citizens at home. “I wondered if food can be offered at your doorstep, then why can’t quality healthcare be provided at home?”
So in September 2019, the Madurai resident started the ‘Doctor on Wheels’ initiative to take medical services for diverse populations, especially the elderly, at their doorsteps.
“Other than the elderly, we also provide healthcare to those who cannot be physically moved to a hospital, like children with disabilities. With this, we also help them save hospital expenses,” he says.
Born in Tiruchirappalli of Tamil Nadu, Dr Swaminathan was raised by his mother in Canada after his parents divorced when he was very young. After completing his schooling, he came back to India in 2006 to pursue higher education in medicine.
In 2015, after completing his MBBS and post-graduation in emergency medicine, he worked at a private medical college in the intensive care unit as a junior consultant for five years. “But I felt that a corporate job is not my cup of tea. I wanted to offer something better to people,” he says.
A year after starting ‘Doctor on Wheels’, Dr Swaminathan quit his job to give this endeavour his full focus.
He modified a Maruti Eeco ambulance and installed equipment from ICUs — infusion pumps, syringe drivers, defibrillators, and oxygen cylinders. “The only machine I could not add was a CT scan machine,” he smiles.
He informs, “We come across patients with all kinds of illnesses, from the common cough and cold to cancer. We also offer basic consultations, palliative care, peritoneal dialysis, and post-hospitalisation care. We not only deliver medications to them but also we collect blood samples for tests and provide facilities like portable X-rays, ECGs, ultrasounds — whatever I can provide at their doorsteps.”
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Dr Swaminathan works with a team of eight — physiotherapists, a physician assistant, a radiologist, nurses, and a driver. The team, he says, visits patients for regular follow-ups either weekly, bi-weekly or monthly depending on their conditions. “If the patient needs hospitalisation, we help them get admitted to the hospital of their choice for free of cost,” he adds.
The team travels about 60 km and attends at least 25 calls in a day. For this, he charges between Rs 300 and Rs 800, depending on the distance the team has to travel.
“We charge a nominal fee to cover transport expenses,” he notes. “We have treated patients from both affluent families as well as in a hut where I do not get a chair and sit on the ground. When we feel the families are poor, we do not charge any amount.”
A big relief to 25,000 patients
So far, Dr Swaminathan says he has treated more than 25,000 patients in and around Madurai.
Twenty-three-year-old Manubharati points out how easy this endeavour has made things for his grandparents — both in their 70s and often sick due to high blood pressure and urinary infections — because they don’t have to wait in long queues at the hospital.
“Usually, my mother would accompany them to the hospital for treatment. She is also 47 years old and it gets difficult for her to take them to hospital all by herself. So, we instead call Dr Swaminathan. He is very patient and listens to my grandparents very carefully. It is convenient for us to get healthcare services at home,” he tells The Better India.
“Other than the long timings, commute and long working hours are the most difficult part of this job. Commuting through Madurai amid traffic is really difficult. It is also one of the reasons why we start really early. Even if I start about an hour late, my whole schedule for the day gets disturbed. Sometimes I have to skip my OPD as well,” he says.
“It is not just about me, it is a combined effort of me and my team. We work about 14 hours a day. As I do it out of passion and I really enjoy what I do, you won’t find me fidgety and stressed out. It really fills my heart and I feel I am able to make a difference in somebody’s life every single day,” adds the doctor.
Edited by Divya Sethu. All photos: Dr Swaminathan C.
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