|Feature - Patient neglect: The indelible stain on Zimbabwe’s health sector|
|Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:59|
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THE joke that has been making rounds among the multitude of poor Zimbabweans since the economy went haywire is that they have to die first before health care practitioners pay attention to them.There is nothing humorous about that sick joke because it is uttered in despair by a disheartened population that has had to endure long queues, poor beds spilling into corridors, outdated and malfunctioning equipment and a scarcity of doctors, nurses and medicine at public hospitals.
In the hearts of the majority, who experienced or had a relative experience the entrenched poor health delivery system, this is a period when authorities are not recognising health as a human right. Justifiably so, as most of the population has little or no access to health care.
Good health care is a luxury for those with money or the cover of a good medical aid scheme to be attended to by private hospitals, which charge unbelievably exorbitant fees that are beyond the reach of many.
But even in private practice the lives of patients seeking attention have been dangerously compromised as hospitals and clinics demand cash upfront. Gone are the days when doctors and nurses treated you first and asked you to pay later.
Mrs Sharon Mlotshwa, a retired nurse said health practitioners are breaking the oath of service they took, are now merely paying lip service and are only concerned about what gets into their pockets.
“For the past 10 years doctors and nurses have conducted themselves very unprofessionally. We understand their plight, the poor remuneration and working conditions, but that is not an excuse for them to ill-treat patients. What we have been witnessing is highly unprofessional behaviour, a behaviour that portrays that while they call themselves health care workers, they really don’t care what happens to patients,’’ said Mrs Mlotshwa.
In the eyes of Mrs Mlotshwa and many the Government does not understand the complexities of the health care system as it continues to prioritise other areas at the expense of people’s lives even though this year it allocated US$345,6 million to the health sector. She cites the 2010 national budget in which Finance Minister Tendai Biti gave only 9 percent to the health sector instead of the 12 percent stipulated by the Abuja declaration.
“The Minister of Finance apologised for not giving the health sector the appropriate and adequate funds but I think it’s about time the Government accepts responsibility. It can not continue giving excuses for undermining the health sector just because (Mr) Biti said there are pressing and more priority issues to address.
“But doctors and nurses in public health institutions have been on an unofficial go slow for the past 10 years because they are unhappy with their salaries. Occasionally they down their tools and the Government quickly reminds them that they took the oath. But it forgets that it has a duty to make the situation on the ground conducive to ensure that the doctors and nurses work in an enabling environment, an environment that makes them fulfil their oath,’’ she said.
Such a bad and sad picture clearly shows that health care, a universal right has been trampled on and the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, Dr Henry Madzorera, is in agreement with this notion as he believes the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals in the health sector will be difficult to achieve due to under funding.
“The shortage of health workers and the growing burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases have slowed down progress. The decade-long economic turmoil contributed to the deterioration of health services and there is a need for the Government to increase its budget allocation as that will go a long way in attempts to turn around our health fortunes.’’
The lack of adequate Government funds has seen patients being made to fork out huge amounts of cash and that has resulted in the poor failing to access even the most of basic services. This has directly contributed to the loss of lives that could have been spared as many patients, unable to foot hospital bills, end up returning home without being attended to.
Mrs Tafadzwa Marume lost her husband in 2009 when doctors at a named hospital refused to attend to him because he did not have money or medical aid.
Mrs Marume’s case is just a tip of the iceberg — people dread being patients at Mpilo Hospital and United Bulawayo Hospitals because they believe it is equivalent to a death sentence.
This is what Mrs Marume had to say: “The first thing they asked me when we arrived at the hospital was whether I had the money or medical aid to have him treated. When I said I had none of the two the nurses told me to look for money because without money the doctor would not treat my husband. By the time I found the money it was too late as my husband died.
“I strongly believe that he could have survived had the doctors treated him. I know I am not the first to have lost a loved one because of the greediness and unprofessional conduct of the doctors but it does not make it right. Something needs to be done to correct the sad situation and it should be done quickly because lives are at risk.’’
Patient neglect has seen many lives that could have been saved lost and one of the most affected areas is maternity where maternal deaths occur almost everyday. People have blamed system failures, weak leadership and a poor quality of care for the preventable deaths.
It is a fact that difficult decisions in hospitals are often left to junior staff as senior doctors prefer to spend most of the time in their private surgeries which are profitable and as such hospitals usually fail to respond quickly when a patient’s condition changes unexpectedly as uncultured hands result in the death of an unfortunate patient.
Mr Thomas Sibanda, a lawyer, revealed that patient neglect is a serious crime regardless of the fact that the patient could not afford to be treated.
“Every doctor and every nurse knows that they have a duty to save lives and if a life is at stake and you have the power to save it and you do otherwise because you want to be paid first that is a crime and you can go to jail. It is a crime to physically or mentally neglect, or threaten to neglect or abuse any patient under your care.
“Neglect happens when a health care provider fails to provide the level of treatment that a reasonably prudent person would have provided in order to avoid physical harm or mental anguish to the patient. Negligence is also the failure to notice a patient’s condition and to take appropriate action,’’ said Mr Sibanda.