Saturday Jan 02 2021
Web Desk

New year gift: Pakistani-origin doctor forgives $650,000 debt of cancer patients in US city

Web Desk
 Dr Omar Atiq. File photo

A Pakistani-origin oncologist in Arkansas forgave more than half a million dollars in outstanding debts form nearly 200 cancer patients.

The Arkansas Clinic, founded by Dr Omar Atiq in 1991, provided cancer treatments ranging from chemotherapy and radiation therapy and tests such as CAT scans. It had to shut its doors in February 2020 due to a shortage of staff.

Earlier this week, the clinic sent out holiday greetings and told patients that any outstanding bills would no longer need to be paid. 

"I hope this note finds you well," wrote Dr Atiq. "The Arkansas Cancer Clinic was proud to have you as a patient. Although various health insurances pay most of the bills for the majority of patients, even the deductibles and co-pays can be burdensome."

"Unfortunately, that is the way our health care system currently works," he added and informed patients that the cancer clinic was closing practice after over 29 years of service. 

"The clinic has decided to forego all balances owed to the clinic by its patients," said the note. "Happy holidays."

The outstanding bills amount to $650,000. 

"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 told Arkansas Online. "We just thought we could do it, and we wanted to, so we went ahead and did it."

The doctor is also a professor at UAMS College of Medicine and oncologist at the UAMS William P Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

According to the local daily, the clinic worked with a billing company to cancel the debt and ensure no patient who owed money would face any type of financial repercussions. 

Also read: Pakistani scientist to receive 'Friendship Award' from China

Origins and immigration

Originally from Pakistan, Dr Atiq moved to Pine Buff in 1991 after completing a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.  

"It really is fate," he told Arkansas Online. I moved my family to Arkansas after receiving a call from Jefferson Regional Medical Centre with a job offer." 

He added that the decision to move was "life changing". The doctor became the first non-white president of the Arkansas Medical Society in 2013 and in 2018 he was named chairperson-elect of the board of governors of the American College of Physicians. 

"We have been very grateful. This has been home for a long time. We are grateful for the opportunity for what has happened to our lives here," he said. "I believe the opportunities that have come my way are, in part, because of where I am."

Read more: 243 Pakistani teachers make it to Stanford University’s top scientist list

The idea behind foregoing debt

When the thought of forgiving outstanding debt first crossed his mind, Dr Atiq reached out to executive vice-president of the Arkansas Medical Society, David Wroten.

Talking to Arkansas Online, Wroten said Dr Atiq wanted to ensure there was nothing improper about doing it. "I can't, for the life of me, imagine there would be."

"If you knew Dr Atiq, you would better understand. 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."

Wroten said Dr Atiq "truly has a heart-felt love affair with the patients" and has gotten "as much from his patients as they have gotten from him".

Noting that cancer treatment is "very expensive", Wroten said that there are people who will pay on their bills for 20 years, may be $10 a month. 

Dr Atiq said his clinic has amount of outstanding debt that it does partly because "we have never refused to see a patient."

"Not for lack of health insurance or funds nor for any other reason," Atiq said. "I've always considered it a high honour and privilege to be someone's physician - more important than anything else."