Hospital on wheels

Patients cover their eyes as they wait before their cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

JALORE, India – Bhawri Devi, an illiterate Indian labourer, thought she was dying when she started to lose her hearing last month.
She went to a government hospital near her remote village in the western state of Rajasthan to be treated, but it did not have a specialist doctor.

The nearest private hospital was in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, and Ms Devi was told her treatment, middle ear surgery, would cost about 50,000 rupees ($766) there.

“I didn’t even have 5000 rupees,” said Ms Devi, 41, who returned in despair to her home in Jalore.

Days later came news of visiting specialists who would treat her for free.

They arrived in early April as volunteers on the Lifeline Express, a seven-coach train converted into a rolling hospital that has crisscrossed India for 27 years to treat people like Ms Devi living in areas with scarce healthcare.

Lifeline Express has treated about 1.2 million people since its launch in 1991 by the non-profit Impact India Foundation, said chief operating officer and doctor Rajnish Gourh.

In a country that spends just one per cent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, among the world’s lowest, the hospital on wheels fills a critical gap.
Like Ms Devi, India’s poor are caught between relying on a crumbling public health system trusted by few, or selling meager assets to fund private treatment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched a scheme in February that aims to widen health insurance coverage to 500 million people, but critics say the plan is unlikely to work unless public health systems improve dramatically.
Until then, options such as Lifeline Express offer crucial support.