Our healthcare is on life support

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A couple of years ago, I was complaining on Facebook that my seasonal allergies had kicked into gear again when a friend of mine advised me to go and see a certain ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist in Harare’s central business district.

Deborah Peters,consultant

When I went for my appointment to see this professor of medicine, he was quite chatty and recommended a series of skin tests to determine if I had any allergies. One of his assistants phoned my medical aid at the time to see how much coverage I was eligible for.

This is a new trend, where the medical professional checks your coverage first and tailors their services accordingly. In this case they told me that one test was US$250 and the medical aid resisted, but I pushed back because I wanted to find the root cause of my lifelong seasonal allergies.

A month later, I needed to have some urgent tests for an acute medical problem. I was told that my medical benefits were depleted. I was surprised, because it was only March, so I called the medical aid and they told me that the ENT specialist had claimed US$900 for my allergy tests. Incidentally, my general practitioner told me that there is a much cheaper test for allergies which is less than US$200 and more accurate but specialists in Zimbabwe like to fleece patients. This was the first time that my medical benefits has been depleted in the first two
months of the year and my medical aid provider suggested that I call the ENT doctor and explain my predicament to him.

The ENT doctor was out of the country at a conference and promised to ask his staff to refund US$250 of the charges. However, when I followed up later, his staff wrote a vague letter to the medical aid which the medical aid refused to accept and I went for months without medical cover during which I paid cash for any medical treatment while I continued to pay the medical aid provider until I managed to switch back to a different medical aid provider in November.

Although I used to be a member two years prior, this medical aid provider made me go through a series of medical tests and a full physical, including an electrocardiogram (EKG). The cheapest place to have the heart test in Harare is Parirenyatwa Hospital. It was on my visits to Parirenyatwa Hospital that I got a sense of what people deal with when they go to the public healthcare system. First of all, you have to pay cash in order to even make an appointment for an EKG.

When you walk into Parirenyatwa Hospital you pass through the pharmacy. As a trained pharmacist, I noticed relatives walking into the hospital outside visiting hours, bringing prescriptions for relatives who were hospitalised. The hospital no longer has enough medicines for inpatients. Then when I went up to the wards I saw groups of families trying to cobble up enough cash to pay for family members who were admitted to hospital. Due to the cash shortages, I saw old ladies bringing out a mixture of coins and notes tied up in handkerchiefs and everyone pooling their money together trying to reach the target the hospital was asking for.

Fast-forward to this year and it was my family’s turn to deal with a gravely ill relative. I had identified my previous medical aid provider as being a very limited medical aid service last year and changed back to the other medical aid but everyone else stayed on the prior medical aid.

My cousin discovered she had kidney disease at the beginning of the year. I took her to the hospital and went about getting the necessary approvals for the procedures from the medical aid provider. Can you believe that the medical aid provider actually sent their case worker to the hospital to interrogate her about whether she had any pre-existing conditions? When I went to their offices to get the pre-approvals for a catheter to be inserted for dialysis, the case worker lied that she was going to call the doctor with their approval and they never paid for a single thing down to the hospital fees.

A lot of people are under the impression that as long as they are paying for medical aid every month, they are covered for medical treatment and hospitalisation but they only find out when they claim that they are not paying for much.

Another incident that is still haunting me was what happened when I was at Dandaro’s Borrowdale
Hospital when my cousin was a patient that time. It was lunchtime when one of the restaurant staff rushed into the reception, asking for an ambulance to be sent around to the restaurant at the back because somebody has collapsed.

The receptionist said that she would not send an ambulance because their doctors only come to see specific patients who are admitted, they did not have an emergency room. Then the security guard also ran in, looking desperate. He was even asking for a wheelchair so that he could wheel the patient back to the hospital himself. The receptionist said that the best she could do was give them the phone number for the trauma centre up the road in Borrowdale. Now, I was enraged.

Borrowdale Hospital has several nurses and medical personnel on hand as well as facilities that they could use to save a life. They had oxygen which could make all the difference it takes to keep somebody going until a doctor came. The hospital is in Dandaro, which is a retirement home which sold itself as having a restaurant, shops and many amenities under one place, which is why residents had been sold on the development in the first place. Elderly residents require more healthcare than most people so why are they being denied care at the on-site hospital?

We have lost our humanity when it comes to healthcare in Zimbabwe. I have been describing the challenges that people have in private healthcare with greed in doctors and hospitals. There are endless challenges in healthcare in the public sector. There are medical professionals who do not care about their patients as much. In the old days when you saw a nurse in her starched uniform or a doctor in a white lab coat, it gave you confidence that you were dealing with professionals.

If a patient died in the ward in the old days, the medical team talked about it and the cause of death was investigated thoroughly. Even when I studied pharmacy, we did ward rounds at Pari with a full team with medical students and the professor and now I do not recognise that Pari anymore with dirty linen sometimes abandoned in the corridors. We need to still be proud of our medical system and to maintain our standards.

I remember when the old matrons were like dragons and nobody was allowed in to the wards outside visiting hours but now Pari is like a bus terminus with visitors pouring in at all hours. Members of the public push to get into the one elevator that works while medical personnel struggle for space to wheel in sick patients. If the public want the best care in our hospitals then they have to give the medical professional the required respect in order to do their jobs.

Several years ago I decided to get a mole removed from my right forearm because it had started to itch a lot. It was a simple procedure requiring local anaesthetic. When I went to see the surgeon, I asked him to show me exactly how much he was going to cut off by drawing around it. He drew a wide circumference around the tiny mole and I said no, just cut the mole out, only. He tried to argue that maybe the mole was malignant so he had to cut the surroundings but I told him to test the mole and repeat more surgery later.

On the day of the surgery at West End Clinic, I waited five hours then suddenly they rushed in to take me for general anaesthetic to prepare me for surgery on my left leg. I am glad I asked about the surgery and the name of the doctor because most people put their trust in the nurses and doctors. Not everyone has the benefit of a pharmacy education and experience to take control of their treatment. Children, especially, are at the mercy of their carers so parents have to ensure that they get the right care.

The days when you could sit back and trust that the medical professionals are being thorough are over. Mistakes happen all the time. I came away with a tiny scar after my mole was removed but others are not always so lucky!

Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter: @debbienpeters and e-mail: deb.n.peters@gmail.com.

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One thought on “Our healthcare is on life support”

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