Analysis: BENEDICT TEMBO
RECENTLY, Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya bemoaned that after 50 years of independence, the country is still referring patients abroad to go and seek medical attention.
Dr Chitalu expressed concern about the increase in the number of patients being sent abroad for medical attention due to failure by health practitioners to respond to their needs.
Dr Chilufya’s lamentations, as the person spearheading access to quality health care for all Zambians, is understandable.
Much as Government is rolling out health care facilities around the country, including employing health staff, there are gaps in our health care delivery, which compel some patients to trek outside the country for treatment.
This is also despite increased investment in the health sector as seen in the burgeoning number of private hospitals.
There are three reasons for this. First, it is the availability of specialist physicians in most of these countries.
India, for example, has three times more specialist doctors per capita than Zambia and that is despite the huge population in that country.
“Medical science is so specialised that there is a doctor for almost every body part or organ. These are highly skilled specialists. Second, there has been significant investment in medical equipment, including artificial intelligence in India and other countries,” says economist Chibamba Kanyama.
Mr Kanyama says the technology is so advanced that doctors can easily consult real time with other specialists from any part of the world.
“This has also been necessitated by a regulatory environment that encourages investment by private sector in specialist hospitals and universities. Once medical research collaborated with hospitals, investment books,” he says.
Third, India, Mr Kanyama says, has proved to be cost-efficient in medical provisions.
“You will be surprised that it is cheaper to have treatment in India, including airfares and accommodation than most private clinics in Zambia. This is a moral and ethical question but should send a message to authorities in Zambia to deregulate the market, allow for flexible incentives that should open space for specialised hospitals in Zambia,” he says.
Private treatment in Zambia is becoming expensive and citizens who have health care plans that can include overseas treatment choose to cross the borders for treatment.
Mr Kanyama explains: “We are beginning to see a few such hospitals come into Zambia but will take a lot more than ordinary to have the private sector, pension funds and other institutional investors put money in medical centres.”
He says citizens want to see one or two hospitals listed on the Lusaka Securities Exchange soon but that can only happen when the country has a comprehensive policy that favour such investments.
“I am sure with the successful implementation of medical insurance, we will open a window for efficient and cheaper treatment centres in Zambia. Without a proper medical insurance supported by state regulation, we will see little investment in medical centres in Zambia feel some its prestigious move as they can afford,” Mr Kanyama says.
However, there are certain treatment options which cannot be offered by our hospitals due to lack of specialists or equipment.
For example, Government has not invested in specialist training.
“There are also some things that I have learnt to practice, I can’t implement due to lack of equipment and infrastructure. Lastly, there is little trust in our health system by the well to do people,” Mr Kanyama says.
Preference for treatment outside the country also depends on treatment required. Some people go to South Africa because they say our hygiene and after care is very poor.
We have well qualified medics in Zambia but hygiene/ cleanliness is an area that may need improvement.
Some Zambians, however, believe they can only be cured if treated abroad.
The revocation of some private hospitals’ operating licence by the Health Professional Council of Zambia (HPCZ) recently put a stigma on these institutions as the public lost confidence in them.
The HPCZ announced the shutdown of some private hospitals for allegedly stocking and dispensing expired drugs and using unlicensed doctors was a straw on our health care system, especially that some hospitals were also accused of using expired reagents in their laboratories, pointing to the fact that test results from the facility could be unreliable.
The country needs to do more to restore confidence in our healthcare system to stem the exodus of patients to other countries.
The author is editorials editor at the Zambia Daily Mail.
Analysis: BENEDICT TEMBO