Pakistani doctor forgives $650,000 in medical bills for his US cancer patients
A Pakistani-American doctor has wiped out nearly $650,000 worth of debts for 200 cancer patients after realising that many of them were struggling to pay.
Dr Omar Atiq closed his cancer treatment centre in Arkansas last year after nearly 30 years in business. He worked with a debt collection firm to gather outstanding payments, but then realised many families had been hit hard financially by the pandemic.
Over Christmas, he wrote to patients telling them any debts would be erased. "Over time I realised that there are people who just are unable to pay," Dr Atiq told ABC's Good Morning America. "So my wife and I, as a family, we thought about it and looked at forgiving all the debt. We saw that we could do it and then just went ahead and did it."
Dr Atiq, who is originally from Pakistan, founded the Arkansas Cancer Clinic in Pine Bluff in 1991, providing treatments including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and CAT scans. He is now a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock.
"We thought there was not a better time to do this than during a pandemic that has decimated homes, people's lives and businesses and all sorts of stuff," Dr Atiq said, quoted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
He said the outstanding bills from about 200 patients totalled nearly $650,000 (£480,000).
In his Christmas greeting card to patients, he wrote: "The Arkansas Cancer Clinic was proud to serve you as a patient. Although various health insurances pay most of the bills for majority of patients, even the deductibles and co-pays can be burdensome. Unfortunately, that is the way our health care system currently works. The clinic has decided to forego all balances owed to the clinic by its patients. Happy Holidays."
The president of the debt collection company that had been helping to collect the outstanding payments described Dr Atiq as "a very caring individual".
"He's always been extremely easy to work with as a client," said Bea Cheesman, of RMC of America. "It's just a wonderful thing that he and his family did in forgiving this debt because the people with oncology bills do have more challenges than the bulk of the population."
David Wroten, executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society advocacy group, said that Dr Atiq had called him "to make sure there was nothing improper" about his idea of forgiving patients' debt.
"If you knew Dr Atiq, you would better understand," Mr Wroten said. "First, he is one of the smartest doctors I have ever known, but he is also one of the most compassionate doctors I have ever known."
Talking to CNN, Dr Atiq said "If this gave them a little bit of assistance then I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do so."
"There has always been an element of doubt in my mind about our fellow citizens, fellow human beings having to worry about paying for services when they are sick," the doctor and father of four says. "But that is the way our system unfortunately works. The majority of patients luckily have some health insurance—some way to pay for all the services and medicines which are terribly expensive—but some don't."
Dr Atiq decided to forgive his patients' debts in time for the Christmas Holiday. Each received a card with a personal greeting from their former doctor. The note thanked each patient for trusting Dr Atiq with their care and followed with the generous surprise.
Dr Atiq used this holiday card to deliver the news to patients with unpaid balances.
According to Dr Atiq, the debts carried by his patients ranged from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands. As the ripple effects from the coronavirus pandemic raised financial pressures for so many households, Dr Atiq and his family considered ways they could help.
"We are blessed that we didn't need the money, so we decided to just cancel and forgo the debt—and we did," he tells CNN.
Nearly 30 years ago, Dr Atiq founded the Arkansas Cancer Clinic in the community of Pine Bluff to make comprehensive cancer care available for the economically disadvantaged. Prior to its opening, Pine Bluff cancer patients traveled at least 50 miles for treatment. Dr Atiq is clear that his patients' needs were always his top concern—not their ability to pay.
"One principle I have always followed is, I am here to see patients. For somebody to trust their lives in my hands is the highest privilege and honour I can get," Dr Atiq explains. "We never refused any patient for any reason."
For years, Dr Atiq focused solely on his patients' medical situations. Financial concerns like billing were left to his office crew. "Previously the staff used to take care of it. And, I never really looked at the business side of it," he explains.
But, earlier this year as Dr Atiq and his wife began to close the clinic, their closer review of financial statements revealed something disturbing. Some of the patients were only making meager payments of $5 and $10 toward hefty debt balances. "They wanted to (pay) but they couldn't."
As a physician, Dr Atiq knows all too well the huge financial strain often faced by patients. But as an oncologist, he admits cancer care can often involve particularly overwhelming expenses. Although he wishes all of his patients could simply focus on healing, many are simply not in a position to—even if they have insurance. And, most of his patients had to work while receiving treatment. Some of his patients, including elderly grandmothers, were already working two jobs prior to getting sick.
"Some (patients) would work the day they received their chemo," Dr Atiq recalls.
An immigrant from Pakistan, Dr Atiq's decided to become an oncologist when he realized his community lacked comprehensive cancer care. "When I was in medical school in Peshawar, Pakistan, there were no cancer specialists in the region and there was a need for it," he says. "That's what compelled me towards oncology."
Upon immigrating the US, he saw a similar need within his Pine Bluff community.
All of Atiq's children are either doctors or are training to become physicians.
In the same spirit of generosity that Dr Atiq opened his clinic, he is now closing its doors to begin a new chapter. Dr Atiq is a full-time professor of Head and Neck Surgery at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His patients safely transitioned to a hospital to continue their cancer care.
An observant Muslim, Dr Atiq feels his act of kindness was a small gesture in comparison to what his patients have given to him over the years. "The courage and the resilience and the decency that I have learned from my patients is invaluable," he says, eager to shift attention away from his goodwill and back to his patients.
"The issue is their health," he tells CNN in between rounds. "I am hoping and praying that they are cured of cancer. Or, it is controlled well to where they are living productive, happy lives with their families, and their friends, and their loved ones."