Healthcare system in Pakistan: Of lies and lives

Muhammad Saljuk Gondal

When doctors enter the medical profession, they are required to take the ‘Hippocratic Oath’. The oathserves as an important reminder to doctors of the foundation of their profession: to help the patient as much as possible. To work for their health, respecting all of their rights while doing so.
Unfortunately, though, the oath means nothing to healthcare providers in Pakistan. From doctors to entire hospitals, the entire system seems to ignore the importance of the service it provides. Instead, it chooses to be steeped in a world of deception. The consequence? With a healthcare institution that simply doesn’t care, the system is literally playing with the lives of millions of Pakistanis on a daily basis.
While this may seem like an overstatement, it really isn’t. There is a reason why Pakistan places 122nd out of 190 countries on the ranking of healthcare, according to the World Health Organisation. Every aspect of our healthcare system is riddled with problems that trickle down to the common man. By analysing every stakeholder, this argument can be effectively proven.
Let’s start with the staff. Medical malpractice has long become common in the country. From doctors failing to follow ethical procedures to gross medical accidents by nurses, cases of mistreatment arise every day. However, it can be said that these issues plague almost every country worldwide.
The difference, however, comes with the frequency of these issues. As an example, for the past five years, we have see an annual outbreak of the Young Doctors Association, who come out on the streets demanding higher wages and better working conditions. And every year, without fail, the government placates their concerns with a temporary solution like minimal wage increases.
Regardless of which party is at fault here, the failure of both sides to arrive at a permanent solution means that this will continue to happen. And who suffers the most? The general public, who are left stranded outside hospitals because doctors aren’t available.
After the practitioners, let’s move on to their practice: medicine. More specifically, the entities in charge of producing them. Pharmaceutical companies have a large monopoly in virtually every country. In Pakistan, however, their monopolistic nature is so powerful that they are able to easilyresist costly quality control checks administered by regulating agencies. It comes as no surprise, then, that there have been several instances of substandard medicine consuming lives.
We need not go any further than January of 2012, where contaminated medicines sold to heart patients at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) killed over 100 people. Such instances further demonstrate how the lack of regulation in the health sector ultimately harms the average individual whose only mistake is to trust the system.
Last, but definitely not the least, comes the institution: hospitals. Here is where the problem is exacerbated the most. Corruption, a lack of regulation and quality checks; name a problem and it’s here. With the exception of a few, every hospital plays host to these evils. The best way to illustrate this is the recent stent scandal in Lahore.
With reputable hospitals like Mayo Hospital being involved in the implantation of knockoff stents in patients’ arteries, one can only guess the situation with other hospitals. Not only was Mayo Hospital implanting these knockoffs, it was selling them for the expensive price of original instruments – extortion at its finest.
In some cases, doctors didn’t even place these stents in their patients, faking the operation while the patient was under the influence of anaesthesia. The worst part is that this scam has been taking place for quite a while, evidenced by the fact that the hospital doesn’t even have an actual record of the vendors that it buys its stents from.
And the hospital would have continued to get away with their crime had there not been an outstanding number of cases where patients literally dropped dead from cardiac arrests despite having recent ‘stent operations’. The entire charade is a horrifying one, showing how utterly disgusting and rotten our health care system has become.
As the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) probes into the stent scandal, it’ll most likely come up with punitive measures to deal with those directly involved. And that’ll be the end of it.
Sometime later, when another glaring malpractice issue inevitably hits the headlines, the entire nation will once again ponder how its health system can be so hollow and weak. And once more, we will fail to realize how the problem is far deeper than we realize, extending to each level of the system.
Currently, Pakistan ranks 127th in the world in terms of life expectancy – courtesy, in large part, of our crumbling healthcare. If we aim to better that figure anytime soon, we need to realize the importance of the Hippocratic Oath and truthfully pledge to put the patient before anything else. Otherwise, we leave our lives in the hands of a system that lies. Are wewilling to take that risk?

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