Tshering Palden 

Water Male Tiger Year: HeaLth – The Covid-19 pandemic was not only a threat to the health of human beings. The deadly virus killed numerous tigers in the Year of the Tiger in the USA, India, and Sweden, among other countries. But the tiger’s indomitable spirit reigned and the year saw the pandemic gradually dissipate as vaccination and more infected people recovered, boosting the herd immunity.

A major milestone for mental health last year was the establishment of the Pema Center Secretariat. The center aims to help build a society that promotes the mental health and well-being of all Bhutanese.

After months of long queues at the JDWNRH for immigration medical examinations, the ministry started the much sought-after health examinations for overseas visa services from Mongar and Gelephu regional hospitals after the Australian government approved the empanelment of the doctors from the hospitals. As of February 2023, there were 18 panel physicians and seven radiologists approved in the country to provide the services at the three referral hospitals, including JDWNRH.

The ministry received the 2022 UN Interagency Task Force and the WHO Special Program on Primary Health Care Award. Bhutan was declared as Open Defecation Free (ODF) with nationwide coverage of access to improved sanitation facilities on World Toilet Day last year.

The ministry launched the health sector transformation after the Civil Service Reform Act 2022. The ministry downsized to two departments and the formation of a new agency National Medical Services to provide a singular and renewed stewardship for clinical services management in the country began the health transformation on January 9, 2023. Three regulatory bodies, Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority, Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority, and Drug Regulatory Authority were consolidated into the new Bhutan Food and Drug Authority.

The ministry reported one of the highest annual new HIV cases in 2022, an addition of 79 cases. Between 1993 and December 2022. Bhutan recorded 874 (456 males and 418 females) cases. Today, about 660 Bhutanese live with HIV (PLHIV).

The Tiger Year ended with some significant milestones in terms of strengthening the health infrastructure. The ministry inaugurated the 40-bedded Jigme Dorji Wangchuck Military Hospital in Dewathang and handed it over to the Royal Bhutan Army on February 5.  The groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the 100-bedded Royal Centre for Infectious Diseases was held on February 19. The center which will be constructed and completed in four years with the funding support of Nu 1.86 billion from the Government of Japan.

The electronic patient information system (ePIS) rebounds after its initial setback in 2016, has been tried at the JDWNRH last year, and is planned to launch nationwide in July this year.

Going forward, the country continues to strive towards the elimination of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV, Syphilis, and Hepatitis B by 2025.

Bhutan also targets eliminating the most common cancer in the country – cervical cancer, and HIV/AIDS by 2030.

The Nu 1.109 billion budget Health Flagship Project, which started in 2020 as a comprehensive targeted intervention to address the burden of the most common cancers in the country, was mainstreamed into a dedicated cancer prevention and control program under the Department of Public Health.

One of the challenges in the ministry, like any other ministry, is human resources. While 110 new recruits joined the ministry in the professional and management category last year, many more exited the ministry.