It’s a question Dr Paul Ramesh Thangaraj has been asked sev eral times since 2002, the year he decided to move back to India after a decade long stint in the UK. Why would a cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon based in the UK want to work in Chennai?
It’s an answer, admits Dr Thangaraj, which has changed over the years.”In 2002, I made the move because I wanted to be in the same city as my parents as they were getting older,” he says. “A year later I decided to stay on because I wanted my children to grow up in India, with family . But after those first couple of years, he stayed on for purely professional reasons. “India, and Chennai especially, was on the cusp of a healthcare boom and I realized that if I stayed back in India I would be part of something much bigger,” says the 48-year-old.
Today , it’s a decision he does not regret. Since his return, he has spearheaded the heart and lung transplant programme in Apollo Hospitals Chennai, where more than 60 multi-organ transplants have been performed to date, including Asia’s first en-bloc combined heart and liver transplant, done this year. “If I had chosen to return to the UK in 2002, I would have remained a cog in the wheel, but here I got a chance to steer the ship,” he says. ” Abroad, I would have been seen as a competent surgeon. Today, I am a more fulfilled one.”
While Dr Thangaraj returned when the healthcare boom was beginning, today as medical tourism flourishes in Chennai, with several corporate hospitals setting up shop as well as announcing mega expansion plans, recruiters at Chennai hospitals say the “reverse brain drain” of doctors returning to their hometowns is on the rise. While it has been reported that the Apollo chain of hospitals receives around 300 applications a year from doctors working abroad, at Fortis Malar Hospital, medical superintendent Dr Hena Mirza says every month she interviews at least three doctors looking to come home.
“The reasons are personal, with 80% of the doctors saying they want to come back because their children have hit the teen years and they want them to grow up with the same values that they did,” says Dr Mirza. “But once they start working here, the reasons get more professional. It does not take them long to realize that India provides a more diverse and challenging work environment,” says Dr Mirza, adding that critical care specialists, anaesthesiologists and laproscopic surgeons are returning in large numbers. “Laproscopy is well established abroad but just taking off here. So India is the best place to be,” she says, adding that with more hospitals being corporatised, doctors have begun to realise that salaries are comparable to those abroad too. “So they get the best of everything – work, family , and culture,” she says. It was for similar reasons that Dr P Basumani, consultant gastroenterologist at Fortis Malar Hospital, returned to India. “Though I work longer hours here juggling surgeries and patient check-ups, there is nothing like being able to communicate with the patients in your own language. The gratitude and warmth of the people makes it all worth it,” says Dr Basumani, who worked in the UK for 20 years. After treating bowel cancers and inflammatory bowel diseases abroad, India has given him a fresh set of health complications leading to fatty liver and tuberculosis. Though the senior doctor finds that technology in the country is updated to the international standards his test lies in treating patients in the most cost-effective manner. “The learning from my experience abroad is to be economic with your treatment and treat everyone special,” he says.
According to Vijaya Meenakshi, facility director at birthing boutique Motherhood, super-specialists have begun returning to Chennai because they have realized they will be more in demand here than abroad. “We recently hired an urogynaecologist, for instance, which is a super specialisation within gynaecology. There aren’t too many of them in Chennai,” she says.
In Chennai, driving the colorectal surgery is Dr Venkatesh Munikrishnan at Apollo Hospitals. “The medical fraternity , till a few years ago, saw specialists as a threat. It was a challenge for me to prove myself and work with patients who had not heard of my area of expertise before. I saw it as a big opportunity to set up base and convince people that they need to look at specialists within gastro surgery,” says Dr Munikrishnan , who worked and studied in the UK Royal College of Surgeons for 15 years before he returned in 2010.
Nearly 16 long years working in Brunei left neurosurgeon Dr M Anbuselvam with a deep longing to return to his hometown, Chennai. The tiny nation may have had the best technology and facilities for his specialty, but home was home. “I decided to return and serve in my city for the last 10 years of my practice,” says Dr Anbuselvam, who works at the Apollo Specialty Hospital, Vanagaram. “Chennai has undergone a huge transformation, especially in terms of cially in terms of medical technology and facilities since I left,” says Dr Anbuselvam, and adds that what disappoints him is the disparity in society , which he feels was absent in Brunei where there is free education and healthcare for all. In Chennai, many patients are unable to afford treatment due to high costs, he says, hoping the situation will change soon.
“This year though, I celebrated Diwali in my hometown after 17 years. I must admit it was a wonderful feeling to wake up to the sound of crackers and enjoy the festival with loved ones after so long,” he adds.