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Ambulance chasing in Mumbai

Need to get to the hospital fast? Then don't come here.

India has some top-notch private hospitals that offer excellent medical care to the country’s wealthy. Anyone who can afford them, uses them. However, the vast majority of India’s population must rely on government-run hospitals that tend to be in poor condition.

A simple walk around a state-run hospital in Mumbai and one quickly understands why only the poor use it. It feels old and dirty. In one hallway, stains from old pigeon droppings mark the floor. Rooms are filled with patients sleeping on flimsy mattresses on top of peeling old metal beds. Bloody patients and visitors share a waiting room with a stray dog sleeping on the floor.

India’s state-run hospitals are mostly in “deplorable conditions,” says Dr. Mecklai. “Half the time the machines aren’t working, half the time the doctors aren’t available.”

If Dial 1298 picks up a patient who is going to a private hospital, the patient must pay 1,500 rupees ($33) for an advanced life-support ambulance that comes with a doctor and medical equipment, and about half that for a basic life-support ambulance, says Alex.

If a patient chooses to go to a state-run hospital, Dial 1298 assumes he or she is poor and gives the patient a subsidy of up to 50 percent. If a hospital contacts Dial 1298 and says the patient is so poor he or she cannot pay anything, the ride is usually free. About 20 percent of all the calls are subsidized or free, he says.

But there's a problem: People aren’t calling.

Dial 1298 has the capacity to handle about 300 calls a day, but only 50 to 60 call. Alex blames the bad reputations of government ambulance services, or patients who worry about bad traffic.

“The biggest challenge for us is to bring about a behavioral and cultural change among Indians to call an ambulance when they need it,” Alex says.

During a different shift, a 1298 ambulance responded to a call to transfer a patient between hospitals and then sat around at Bombay Hospital for hours, waiting for another call.

Waiting, the driver read the newspaper. The doctor listened to a cricket match on the radio. This reporter managed to lie down in the back of the ambulance and get in a long nap.