Taking the pulse of the nation

Yearender/Health: Although it got its share of issues to chew on, the horse year treated the health sector fairly well.

It kicked off no major controversies that the health sector was earlier known for.  But instances such as the health worker in Bumthang sharing the graphic photograph of the student couple, who committed suicide, was enough to get the public neighing on the ethics and conduct of health workers in the country.

Whether the medical council will take any action against him is yet to be seen, but the increasing spate of suicides in the country became such a public health concern that the health ministry had to start a suicide prevention program.

Thimphu’s referral hospital sees one attempted suicide case every month and, while counseling services were yet to be strengthened, the ministry did start by recruiting a suicide prevention officer.

And amid efforts to reduce waiting time in hospitals, and improve health care delivery, the health ministry in July granted autonomy to Thimphu referral hospital.  With that, a party promise was kept, although human resources still remained with the ministry.

The autonomy, however, helped the sector start its postgraduate program for its first batch of nine doctors at the hospital’s postgraduate medical education centre.  The program offered specialisation for two doctors in each of the six fields of surgery: paediatrics, obstetrics-gynaecology, ophthalmology, anaesthesiology and general practice.  The former Thimphu dzongda took over as the hospital’s President.

Perhaps it wasn’t the impact of granting autonomy but, two months later, the hospital’s cashier went missing, allegedly after embezzling over Nu 5M.

While it continued to airlift patients, especially those hit by arrows from Haa or Lunana, it was not the promised helicopters, but quadcopters that were tested as an option to deliver medicines in the remote parts of the country.

Probably that quite didn’t work, for a health team had to visit the place to confirm if the 35 students in Gomphu LSS in Zhemgang were suffering from vitamin deficiency.  Like other students in the past, these students were also found to lack thiamine, vitamin B1.

Following the Prime Minister’s instruction, the health minister issued an executive order in November, asking all health facilities to provide vitamin B1 supplements to students across the country until the academic session ended.

While Mongar hospital referred its 20 kidney patients to Thimphu after its dialysis machines broke down, the home ministry stopped issuing letters for those collecting donations to go for an organ transplant.

But when the eye bank for cornea transplant was opened, doctors said that, unlike kidneys, the cornea donation is not organ donation, because the cornea is avascular and immune privileged.

What the horse year also showed was that the Bhutanese were becoming unhealthy by the day.  A STEPS survey found that, among adults between 18-69 years, 40 percent of women and 27 percent of men are overweight or obese in the country today.

To promote a healthy lifestyle, the health ministry, with support from the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that, by next month, it would construct six open-air gymnasiums in the city.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said the gymnasiums, which will be established to commemorate the Fourth King’s 60th birth anniversary, would be for those, who are unable to afford gym membership in the city.

As WHO declared Ebola a public health emergency of international concern, the health ministry started preparing and remained prepared on paper to handle Ebola cases.

To reduce infant and maternal mortality and meet the MDG target, the Prime Minister announced that the government would build a specialised mother and child hospital.  Neonatal deaths accounted for most of the infant mortality cases in the country.  The mother and child hospital, however, comes at the cost of the detox centre that was planned in Gidakom.

After the first five gave the disease a face three years ago, the horse pushed another three HIV positives to go public with their status on World AIDS Day.  There are 402 people living with HIV in the country today.

As the year came to an end, what the horse whinnied loudly about was the decline in health budget over the plan period.

Diseases and the shortage of health workers aside, and with or without the helicopters, the health sector is hopeful that the Sheep will ensure that government spending on health care increases from the existing 3.55 percent of GDP to at least five percent.

An increase would give the sector a chance to address all its issues because, in the words of the director general Dr Ugen Dophu, “The cut in budget impacts health directly, but it affects the whole country as well.”

Sonam Pelden

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