When nine-year-old Samir Tamang was bitten by a dog on his way to school in Rayale village of Kavre last week, he had to take a two-and-a-half hour long bus ride to Kathmandu with his grandfather Suk Bahadur Tamang, for a rabies vaccination at Teku Hospital.
Samir missed school and his grandfather, who works as a driver in Kathmandu, had to ask for leave from his employers.
“We are relatively close to the capital, but imagine what it must be like for people living in remote parts of Nepal where there are no roads,” says Suk Bahadur.
Indeed, despite the spread of basic health care in Nepal, emergency treatment and procedures like mending broken bones or caesarean sections are not yet available in rural areas. This means families have to sell property or borrow from moneylenders to be able to afford treatment in the cities. Studies have shown that many Nepali families are driven to poverty if relatives are referred to private hospitals.
Unmet surgical needs in remote districts remain a major public health issue in Nepal, according to a recent study in 39 remote area hospitals commissioned by the Nick Simons Institute (NSI).
One day this week, an informal survey of patients at the government-run Bir and Teaching Hospitals in Kathmandu showed that a majority of the patients were from remote districts, some as far away as Piuthan and Jajarkot.
The NSI study shows that except for caesarean sections in Dolakha, Lamjung and Panchthar, very few government hospitals elsewhere were able to do simple operations of the abdominal cavity, or even mend broken bones.
Nepal’s surgery rate falls well below the Lancet Commission target of 5,000 operations per 100,000 population. If the goal is to have a surgical facility within two-hour travel distance for patients, at present only a third of the population can reach an orthopaedic surgeon, and only 22% have access to abdominal surgery.
However, the survey reaffirms that the presence of a medical general practitioner (MDGPs who can perform caesarean sections and other relatively simple surgical procedures) can change this. District hospitals with resident MDGPs can eliminate the need for patients to make expensive and extended trips to the cities for treatment.
The minimum personnel at a district hospital should include an MDGP, obstretrics doctor, anaesthesia assistant, staff nurse and biomedical technician. However, Nepal’s density of hospitals with such staffing is very low (0.4-3.1 per 100,000) as against the Lancet Commission target of 20 per 100,000 population.
“In the long run we need specialists but placing three of them in each district hospital will take a long time. For the next 5-10 years, MDGPs will be the answer to solve surgical problems throughout the country,” explains Anil Shrestha, NSI’s Executive Director.
The study recommends an MDGP-led generalist surgical team with proper staff, drugs and equipment to upgrade emergency surgical care in all district hospitals.
Adds Shrestha: “The government has to strengthen strategically located district hospitals and make them functional to take care of surgical needs throughout the year. It is entirely possible to do.”
Sonia Awale in Kavre
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