Monday June 17, 2024

241 deaths

By Azam Khalil
January 12, 2016

Two newspaper reports published on the front page of this newspaper on December 22, 2015 would have shaken any government in the world but in Lahore no one even batted an eye.

One report pertained to the death of eight infants in 48 hours in a local public hospital for want of ventilators and the other news item screamed that a Chinese bank had agreed to provide Rs162 billion for the metro train project in Lahore.

There has never been any doubt that the provision of health services in public sector hospitals is at best deplorable and that the government – despite being reminded day in and day out – has not initiated any measures to improve the situation. Inquiries from official sources reveal that at least 241 people died in various public hospitals in Lahore in the last ten months, 91 of them in Mayo Hospital alone due to lack of ventilators in these hospitals. It would be pertinent to point out that things have fallen to such a low level that ventilators, a basic facility of healthcare, are mostly not available in the ICU units in these public sector hospitals. It is routine for the doctors on duty to advise patients to go to private hospitals which in turn are so expensive that they remain out of reach for the majority of the population.

Even in dire situations patients’ attendants are given Ambu bags to help with the manual breathing of the patient; this is mostly not an effective method of saving a life. Hygiene is in public sector hospitals is an unknown word and it is common to see rats and cockroaches dancing around even during daylight. The beds are infested with bed bugs and doctors on night duty are afraid to lie on the beds provided to them for fear of being bitten by one bug or the other. There is a perennial shortage of beds.

The most vital area of any hospital is its pathology laboratory. Even in cases where blood transfusion is required, instead of the mandatory three screening tests, only two are conducted in the government-owned hospitals in Lahore. This could result in an infection for the patient.

The nurseries for newborns are mostly managed without oxygen tents. The mandatory screening of all newborns is seldom conducted as that entails expensive tests which are ignored by the concerned authorities. This leaves the newly born at great risk – but no one seems to care. On their part, public-sector doctors have a long list of grievances against administration personnel for not fulfilling the basic environmental and structural reforms that were promised to them three years ago.

Among these reforms the thorniest issue remains the nonpayment of any emoluments to medical officers who work as slaves without pay even after they have completed their house jobs and are working as FCPS trainees in different disciplines. The government is not prepared to bend even an inch despite widespread agitation and strikes by the young doctors who are given a lollipop here and there while their basic demands remain unfulfilled.

Coming back to the facilities offered by government hospitals, rampant corruption eats away into whatever little budgetary grant is provided by the government of the day to these hospitals. A recent news report suggested that medicines worth Rs 40 lac were pilfered every week from a major public hospital in Lahore, and that it was no different in other institutions that functioned in the city.

To add to the misery of the patients, the government tries to play on their sentiments by trying to pitch patients against doctors and vice versa instead of looking into the malaise that affects the health sector. One wonders if the figures available with the government regarding the state of provision of health to the people are of any real concern. It seems that health is a very low priority subject with the present government because in real terms only around two percent of the budget has been allocated for health services out of which a major chunk is utilised for salaries and transport etc.

A Rs162 billion metro train project in one city only cannot be justified keeping in view the state of the health services that are presently nearly nonexistent in the public sector. According to one estimate, at least four state-of-the-art hospitals complete with modern facilities and 400 beds each could have been built with the same amount. However, there seems to be no short- or long-term plan by the incumbent government to address the serious problems faced by the public sector hospitals and the doctors working there.

The government continues to squander away billions of rupees on projects that will cater only to about two percent of the population of Lahore. Four additional hospitals and provision of medicine, proper testing facilities and additional beds, on the other hand, would not only ensure that we have a healthy population but will also lay the foundation of a comprehensive health scheme.