Friday 8 November 2013

Healthy optimism

There’s reason to be optimistic, there really is.

Despite what many pessimists would have you believe not all the news for consumers is bad. Yes, of course there are problems but I think we should also look on the bright side. There really is good news out there.

Let’s start with the best bit of consumer news in a long time. On 22nd October, Dr Khumo Seipone, Director of Health Services in the Ministry of Health issued a press release. It’s worth quoting in full.

The Ministry of Health has observed that some private health practitioners and private health facilities do not attend to medical emergencies but instead turn patients [away] because they do not have finances to access the service.

Whilst government facilities are recipients of such cases and are duty bound to do so, medical ethics dictate that all health professionals and health facilities including those in private care are also duty bound to do the same. The practitioners are compelled to stabilize the patient and make arrangements for the referral of such cases through emergency medical services.

Private health facilities and professionals are therefore reminded of this ethical principle, and are further notified that failure to comply will negatively affect their licensure.

The ministry will be monitoring such behaviors through it public facilities.”
Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Dr Seipone is my new favourite public servant.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced exactly what Dr Seipone is referring to. We all know of cases where patients have been presented at a certain private health care facility only to be told that nothing will be done until they’ve been paid.

A few years ago one public holiday I got a call from the neighbour of a good friend. He’d suffered an extremely bad head injury and was seriously ill. She’d called an ambulance and taken him to this particular hospital but even though he had top-of-the-range local medical aid cover the hospital refused to admit him. Instead they told her that because it was a public holiday they couldn’t contact the medical aid company and their message to her was simple. Give us P3,000 in cash or we won’t admit him.

When I arrived it was clear he was in a bad way. The doctor showed us a CAT scan of his head and even I could see that it was serious. His brain was being massively compressed by an enormous bleed inside his skull. It was quite clear that he was dying but they promised that their neurologist would operate the following morning.

BUT. Yes, there was a “But”. Even though he was dying they told me that the operation would not go ahead until I gave them P2,500.

Let me repeat this. My friend, the victim, had the best medical aid cover money could buy but the hospital refused to admit or treat him until they were given lots of cash.

Following Dr Seipone’s statement I hope we’ll see an end to this sort of behaviour. Nobody is expecting private doctors and hospitals to treat people for free but they are expected to “to stabilize the patient and make arrangements for the referral of such cases through emergency medical services”. However the very best bit of the press release is towards the end: “failure to comply will negatively affect their licensure.”

In other words, behave or leave.

The Ministry of Health were also active in our recent case of soon-to-be-expired baby formula. A pharmacy in Gaborone was found to be selling baby formula that was about to expire. Worse, they were selling them on a two-for-one special offer. Each box would last for about a month so the first would expire shortly after opening and the second would have expired weeks before it was opened.

A critical point. We’re not talking about a can of baked beans or a bottle of water being sold a few days after its expiry date, this was baby formula. There are no items for sale that are more important.

Although the manufacturer took immediate action the pharmacy was a little slower to react. That’s until the Ministry of Health stepped in and demanded action, reminding the pharmacy that the regulations in Botswana require that when baby formula is sold it must have at least three months until it expires. Profuse apologies from the pharmacy chain soon followed and the problem doesn’t seem to have occurred again. Clearly the pharmacy didn’t want an angry Ministry of Health making their life difficult for them.

It looks like we can add the Ministry of Health to the list of enforcement agencies who have the guts to get their hands dirty. Along with NBFIRA, the Bureau of Standards, BOTA and DCEC, they have powers that they can use to protect us and it looks like they’re wiling to use them.

However none of these enforcers can be everywhere. They can’t be in every store every day. That’s why they need us to tell them about problems when they occur. They need us to be their eyes and ears. So let’s make sure that when we see things going wrong we let the authorities know. Above all, next time you are given a hard time by a private health practitioner or hospital let MOH know so they can get all muscular with them and maybe even cancel their licence?

Like the Police, these enforcers can only enforce with our consent and collaboration. It’s only when the community and the law enforcement agencies cooperate that they can do what we pay them to do. So let’s lend them a hand? It’s in our interest to do so.

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