Pakistan’s shambolic public health system suffers from corruption, mismanagement and lack of resources. But one public sector hospital in Karachi provides free specialised healthcare to millions, led by a man whose dream was inspired by the UK’s National Health Service.Dr Adib Rizvi’s most distinguishing feature is not just his grey hair. You can spot him in a crowd of people in a cramped hospital corridor by the respect he commands among patients and staff.
It doesn’t only come from being the founder and the head of one of Pakistan’s largest public health organisations.Quite the opposite, for a man who’s spearheaded a life-long mission of providing “free public health care with dignity,” Dr Rizvi is unassuming as he walks around the hospital wards checking on his patients.Many of them he knows by name. They include children as well as the elderly, Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
The rapport he enjoys with them is striking. He’s seen as a friend, someone they trust, someone who’s not after whatever little money they may or may not have.Adib Rizvi was barely 17 when Hindu-Muslim communal riots forced him to migrate from India to the newly created country of Pakistan.Without a family, he spent much of his time as a medical student in Karachi in the 1950s living in boarding hostels.”In those days, I had plenty of time to roam about and observe what goes in our hospitals,” he remembers.
What he experienced there would leave a deep impact on him for the rest of his life. SIUT provides free specialised healthcare to millions across Pakistan and beyond “I saw people being abused for not being able to pay for treatment. I saw elderly women taking off their earrings and pawning them to pay for medicine. “People would beg for healthcare, but they would be demeaned. It was like people were required to pawn off their self-respect to get a service which I felt should have been their right as citizens in the first place.”After completing his medical degree in Karachi, Dr Rizvi went to Britain for a fellowship in surgery. There, he spent a decade working in hospitals.
“I was inspired by the National Health Service (NHS). It showed me that providing free healthcare was doable,” he says. But when he returned to Pakistan in 1971 and joined Civil Hospital Karachi as assistant professor of urology, most people around him told him he was talking utopia. “They said it can’t be done here.”At the time, he had a choice.He could have opted to set up his own private hospital. He could have built up his own lucrative empire while keeping his day job at the poorly run government hospital – a path taken by many highly qualified physicians in Pakistan.
“But the option never really appealed me,” he says. “I always felt that in order to really make a difference, I had to be committed to this public sector hospital. Because when you contribute to public sector institutions, you help the common man. That’s what I wanted to do.”No obstacle was big enough. Lack of funds, beds, medicines, surgical instruments didn’t discourage him. Neither did the lack of enthusiasm among health officials to change or improve things. Contributions were collected from a close network of friends and well-wishers. A team of publically-spirited doctors and medics started to come together. They got on with whatever they could manage to expand their services. A few second-hand dialysis machines were imported from Britain and added to the small urology ward.