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Dr Ruth Pfau Hospital?

Renaming medical institutions as well as physical landmarks seems to be a futile exercise as changing names does not change history

Dr Ruth Pfau Hospital?

Dr. Ruth Pfau passed away recently. She was a woman of great accomplishment and had a major impact on healthcare in Pakistan especially when it came to treatment of Leprosy. She is perhaps single-handedly responsible for almost wiping this dreaded disease from Pakistan. As such she deserves all the honour she has received. A new teaching hospital in Karachi will be named after her and an existing teaching hospital might also be named after her.

When it comes to naming medical institutions after people I strongly believe that existing institutions should not be renamed and that new institutions should only be named after people that are no longer with us or are at least no longer active especially in politics. That said, many of our hospitals in Pakistan that were built before partition were named after ‘important’ living English personages or Indian benefactors. Lahore has many such institutions. In the public sector, we have Mayo Hospital, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Gulab Devi Hospital, Lady Aitcheson Hospital, Lady Willingdon Hospital, and a few smaller ones.

My own institution was renamed many times. It started off as Lahore Medical School, became Lahore Medical College and in 1911 became King Edward Medical College named after the recently deceased king of England. It most recently became King Edward University after its elevation to the rank of a university.

Interestingly, two major medical colleges in the Punjab established soon after the partition of India were named after living Pakistanis. The first was Fatima Jinnah Medical College for Women in Lahore and the second was Nishtar Medical College in Multan that was named after Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar who was governor of Punjab when this medical college was established. Most other medical colleges built over the last few decades in the Punjab are named after the cities that they are located in.

To the best of my knowledge none of the existing teaching hospitals in Lahore has been renamed after some important person, living or dead. One of the reasons for this might be that there are trusts set up before partition that provide funds for many of these hospitals and therefore their names cannot be changed without losing access to the trust funds.

When it comes to naming medical institutions after people I strongly believe that existing institutions should not be renamed and that new institutions should only be named after people that are no longer with us or are at least no longer active especially in politics. 

One of the important reasons why big hospitals should not be renamed is simply because in an emergency it is important to know where you have to go. Another problem we have in Pakistan, especially in the Punjab is that we do not have enough important dead political leaders after whom the present government might want to name or rename big institutions. And it is difficult to have more than one Jinnah or Liaquat Hospital in one city. But if I am not mistaken there might already be two hospitals in Lahore named after Nawaz Sharif.

Coming back to Dr. Pfau, just naming a hospital after her does not do justice to her legacy. What in my opinion would be much more appropriate is to create an institute attached to any of our major teaching hospitals that is named after her that more importantly continues and expands on what she accomplished. An institute that then, for instance, employs and encourages young doctors to take up public service and prevention of disease as a professional goal. Philanthropic donations can subsidise such activity.

Even though Leprosy might not be a major medical problem anymore but there are enough health issues that need committed preventive healthcare. The list of health issues that need intervention of the sort that Dr. Pfau performed in the treatment of Leprosy are so many that I cannot possibly name all of them. But just a couple of areas are worth mentioning. These include maternal and child health, identification of major childhood medical problems arising from inadequate diets, and treatable conditions like Tuberculosis that are seeing a resurgence.

The important thing in my opinion is not just the actual medical interventions but also the involvement of young physicians in healthcare at the basic level. Many of our doctors today concentrate entirely on treatment of established diseases but few are involved in preventive care at the basic rural level. We already have major teaching hospitals in almost all areas of the country so developing a ‘Pfau’ force to go into rural areas to provide preventive care and diagnostic capability would be an interesting idea. Even if this constitutes just a few months in the post-graduate training of doctors, it would be a very useful service.

Of course, such activity does not have to be limited to a few months in post-graduate medical training. It should be an established programme in every teaching hospital with a regular fulltime staff that not only supervises and trains young doctors but also keeps providing such service continuously. There are many possibilities and these can be explored once a basic programme has been established.

In a similar fashion I think that Abdul Sattar Edhi can best be remembered not just by naming institutions after him but rather by creating programmes that build on what he did. Other than ambulances, most of his charitable work was of a non-medical nature. But there are other doctors that have contributed tremendously to the creation and development of medical colleges and medical specialties in Pakistan and their services should be remembered.

Recently, a new medical college in Lahore was set up that was named after the late Professor Amiruddin, surgeon and teacher who taught and trained many generations of medical students and general surgeons. It is indeed an honour for Dr. Amiruddin but I would rather also have the department of surgery in Mayo Hospital named after him. That would identify him with the department he was attached to for most of his professional life.

Another way of honouring people in a particular area of medicine or any important contributor to an academic field is for universities to create ‘named’ chairs in subjects that were taught and or practiced by these people. Here for instance I would like to see departments of infectious diseases as well as ‘chairs’ in related subjects named after Dr. Pfau. And also for others that have contributed to medical education.

I prefer identifying important contributors to a particular field by creating a connection between the contributors and their area of contribution so that they will then be remembered for what they did. A Ruth Pfau hospital in a generation will only be a name unrelated to the work done by her but a medical department named after her will always remind people of her contribution to the treatment of a major disease.

Here perhaps my intrinsic bias against renaming institutions as well as physical landmarks is showing. No, I don’t think that Civil Hospital, Karachi should be renamed. Whatever new name it gets it will still be civil hospital for most people. The Mayo Hospital will always be Mayo Hospital whatever new name it might get, so will Ganga Ram Hospital. Recently, there was talk of renaming Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore after Gaddafi became a lot less desirable as a name. I opposed that strongly. Changing names does not change history.

Syed Mansoor Hussain

syed mansoor hussain
The author served as professor and chairman, department of cardiac surgery, King Edward Medical University.

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