Monday, April 28, 2008

Saudi Health Ministry worries more about its image than patients

During my last visit to Saudi Arabia I spoke with a source from the Ministry of Health at a local hospital. He told me about the severe shortage of sterile disposable surgical gloves and the frequent infections patients suffer following surgery at some government hospitals.

He said that the cleaning crews at one of the hospitals were using the gloves for their cleaning duties, although doctors and nurses in the surgical units didn’t have enough to take care of patients.

His story reminded me of an incident I had while my mother was having dialysis in a government hospital. A nurse came in wearing surgical gloves stained with blood after attending another patient with Hepatitis C. When I asked her to remove the gloves, she carelessly told me that she had no replacements and went about her business.

Another doctor told me once about physicians complaining to the Ministry of Health about the poor quality of stitches supplied to the hospital. He said some of them were so poor that they would break open and allow the wound to open.

I have been accompanying my mother now for a few years to government hospitals and have seen and heard many incidents like these. So it’s no wonder that the National Human Rights Association came out with a report severely criticizing the Ministry of Health for the way it dispenses medical treatment to the patients.

The report is no surprise to any of us with experience in dealing with government hospitals. But what is truly troubling is the Ministry of Health’s reaction to the report.

Simply, Ministry officials seem to think that the Human Rights Association needs their permission to make their findings public. No, that’s not correct. The association is doing its job to inform the public.
But I understand why the Ministry of Health is embarrassed.

The Human Rights Association found the following: Health services are not distributed evenly to difference regions; rural areas tend to receive fewer services than metropolitan areas; many families must move from rural areas to major cities to receive medication; the Ministry of Health does not do enough to minimize medical mistakes; there is a huge shortage of medication in government pharmacies, forcing patients to purchase their own medicines; government hospital emergency rooms are providing substandard care; the medical staff in many hospitals are less qualified and manpower shortages continue to be a problem; and prisoners, especially those who are HIV-positive or suffering from psychological problems, receive substandard care.

The report is damning, but what is the Ministry of Health’s response?

According to the Ministry, the Human Rights Association does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Ministry or release information until the Ministry responds to the report.
Patient care appears to be a little further down the list of priorities while the Ministry’s reputation is more important.

The Association responded to the Ministry’s concerns with logic. The group’s leaders pointed out that they were simply doing their job by reporting in a transparent manner the complaints from Saudi citizens about the Kingdom’s health services.

The group is following the rules and guidelines established by a government decree, which is part of the constitution.

Besides, the Human Rights Association isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard already. One must be deaf and blind not to recognize the serious shortcomings of government hospitals.

Perhaps the Ministry of Health should stop with its arrogant attitude and acknowledge its repeated mistakes.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare Saudi Arabia’s health care system with that of a Western country, but the Ministry of Health could learn a few lessons from the United Kingdom.

I recently signed up for health care with the UK’s National Health Service. My very first impression was not promising because the moment I entered the reception of my general practitioner for the very first time, I discovered a dog wondering around while its owner was attending to some business at the counter. My initial reaction was to walk out, but I stayed for the appointment.

I found a very caring and attentive doctor who not only diagnosed my condition, but provided me with educational material for me to read later.

I was given an appointment card for a test that included instructions of what to do and what to eat before and after the test. Even though I was allocated a specific time to see the doctor, she patiently answered all of my questions and never was in a rush to see me leave.

This is a concept lost in Saudi Arabia’s government hospitals and it begs the question of when the Ministry of Health will stop worrying about its image and start spending more time on quality patient care.

We are not a poor country and our people deserve a better service when it comes to their lives.

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