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IN GOOD HANDS: Community Health Worker Bhajan Kunwar checks patient Namsara Tamrakar at her home in Chandika village of Achham. Pics: Marty Logan and Srawan Shrestha

Rounding a steep curve on the road to the district capital of Mangalsen a startling set of modular structures comes into view. The modern buildings look out of place in this scenic, but underserved, region of western Nepal.

The construction is part of a $4 million expansion of Bayalpata Hospital, a unique medical facility that is a model for public-private partnership to improve medical care in Nepal’s remote interior.

Inside the ward, orthopaedic surgeon Mandeep Pathak is examining an elderly man with a swollen knee. Clearly visible on an x-ray monitor is a short pin inserted by a general practitioner a few weeks ago, after the patient fell and broke his kneecap.

In the same room with the surgeon today is Community Medical Assistant (CMA) Khagendra Pant, who is wrapping plaster around the arm of a small boy. Thanks to training at the hospital, Pant was able to diagnose the boy’s injury as a clean fracture that did not require an operation.Such training means Bayalpata now has to refer just 10-20% of orthopaedic cases to hospitals in Dhangadi and Nepalganj, compared to nearly 70% two years ago.

“I am proud to say that all the basic trauma care can now be done by general practitioners. Plus they can diagnose cases and decide which need to be referred to outside centres,” says Pathak.

Training is integral to Bayalpata’s mission, says Director of Medical Education Bikash Gauchan: his hospital has continuing medical education for clinicians, and on the job training for future nurses and other staff. General practitioners from various centres learn rural surgery at Bayalpata while mid-level staff come to improve their clinical knowledge.

Patients and families wait outside the new administration building made from rammed earth.

For some patients who travel many days to reach Bayalpata, access to basic surgery here means avoiding an expensive trip to the city. People whose limbs were fractured as long as three years ago delayed treatment until surgery was available at the hospital because they couldn’t afford the trip to a city hospital.

Treatment at Bayalpata and at another hospital in Dolakha run by the non-profit Possible, is free. The group believes healthcare is a fundamental human right protected by Nepal’s Constitution, and should have no cost at point of delivery.

Possible is funded by donations and Nepal government grants, which will grow as its hospitals attain clinical targets, such as the percentage of women who give birth in a facility with a trained clinician. Operating expenses last year were $4.8 million, of which 9% came from the government.

Arrivals are registered in the hospital’s Electronic Health Record (EHR), which puts patients’ information at the fingertips of clinicians throughout the hospital, and eliminates bulky paper records.

Orthopaedic surgeon Mandeep Pathak talks with a patient recovering from a knee surgery whose x-ray is on the monitor.

One patient already on the EHR is Namsara Tamrakar. Sitting cross-legged on a raised, wooden platform outside her home in Chandika village (left), the elderly woman shows visiting hospital staff that she knows how to use her inhaler, but it is empty.

Three years ago, a doctor at Bayalpata diagnosed her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and prescribed medicine via inhaler. Now Community Health Worker Bhajan Kunwar (see box, left) visits regularly to follow up. Like others, Tamrakar’s house has a small blue metal tag on an outside wall with a unique household ID. The houses are also geo-tagged.

Kunwar’s visit is guided by CommCare, a software developed by Dimagi and customised by Possible that includes counselling information and checklists for each patient. Plans are to integrate CommCare with the EHR so that field followups are immediately reflected in the hospital’s system. Eventually, Bayalpata’s EHR will be linked to a national data system.

A girl and her mother arrive for treatment at Bayalpata Hospital.

Kunwar takes Tamrakar’s blood pressure: 120 by 80. The woman is happy to hear the news and to see Kunwar again: “She comes, does a check-up, and tells me what sickness I have, and if it is getting better or worse. She insists I go to Bayalpata for a follow-up.”

The hospital’s community health program focuses on maternal and child health as well as non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and respiratory ailments. Possible employs 56 community health workers looking after more than 80,000 people in Achham and Dolakha. It is planning to more than quadruple that number next year.

Bayalpata Hospital started in 2009, when the group Nyaya Health (now Possible) took over an abandoned government facility. Then it had five beds and treated up to 12,000 patients a year. Last year, Possible saw 86,000 patients at Bayalpata: the goal is to treat 150,000 people annually after the new wards, emergency room, administration building, a dormitory and remaining small houses for on-call staff are added.

“Our integrated, hospital-to-home approach will be a model for Nepal, and beyond,” explains Gauchan, “and we will be proving that in a resource-limited setting, health care expansion, providing universal health coverage to people is possible.”

But is the Bayalpata model really replicable? Skeptics say that two hospitals could have been built for the cost of the new buildings, which feature rammed earth technology, solar energy and rainwater collection, and that only substantial donor support made the expansion possible.
Gauchan admits that the initial investment may seem high but says it will be more cost-effective in the long run.

He adds: “The existing infrastructure for rural health care is way less than the minimum needed to address the emerging burden of non-communicable diseases and road accidents as well as infectious diseases. That is why we are investing in a very robust infrastructure.”

Community spirit

In 2011, Bhajan Kunwar (pictured above) was living an “Ok” life with her husband Purna and children in Bhageswor village of Achham when her sister-in-law Shavitra asked for a favour.

Shavitra had been hearing rumours that her husband, who was working in India, was having an affair or had even remarried. Would Purna take her to India to find out? Purna agreed, and brother and sister set off with a friend. En route, Purna received a phone call from Shavitra’s husband warning them not to come, or there would be trouble.

They continued anyway, and after crossing the border got on a train. That night, a group of men, perhaps including police, boarded the train and took Purna away. He later called Shavitra’s husband to say he had been kidnapped and would be killed unless help came quickly.

Police found Purna’s body the next morning, on the roadside in Ahmednagar, east of Mumbai. It looked like he had been run over, but Bhajan believes he was murdered.

Widowed at 25 and with two small children, Bhajan spent the mourning period worrying about how she would afford to send the children to school, and if her mother-in-law and community would accept her becoming the breadwinner for her husband’s four younger brothers and sisters and their families. (Her father-in-law had died earlier).

That month, Bayalpata Hospital had a vacancy for a community health worker for the area. Bhajan was hired and six years later, still visits on foot the more than 700 households in her catchment area, checking that patients are taking their medicines, and much more (see main article).

“This hospital made me strong,” she tells us. “Before I didn’t know anyone in my village and I didn’t know so many things.” Now with a college certificate, Bhajan advises young women to get educated before they get married. “I tell them ‘if I can do it, you can do it too’. I believe in myself and don’t care what others say about me. If you are true and honest, no harm will come to you.”

Bhajan says she will never forget her husband. “But I have to live for my children, and control my mind and my heart. If I am strong, they can have a regular life. The hospital is now my husband, I cannot imagine leaving it.”

Marty Logan in Achham

Operating remotely

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

Read also:

Poor health, Editorial 

Resurrection Accham,  Paavan Mathema

Boy walked eight days to treat broken arm,  Tsering Dolker Gurung

Free-for-all health,  Duncan Maru and Roshan Bista

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