Saturday, July 21, 2007

I have finished my medical elective in Nepal. Two more days and I will back on Canadian terra firma. Four weeks went by fast but it has definitely been long enough. I spent three of my four weeks in the emergency department.

Though it is not currently a suggestion that comes up very often, small service charges have previously been proposed in Canada to help solve the problem of our stretched-to-the-limit health services. The theory being that a nominal fee will keep people from going to the doctor unnecessarily and will prompt them to seek out the most appropriate type of healthcare, for example not go to the emergency room when it could wait for a visit to the GP the next day. I have always been opposed, almost reflexively, to this idea. The idea of reaching for your wallet when you get to the doctor's office feels wrong and unCanadian. My experience in Nepal, where people do just that, has demonstrated for me why, even small payments for access to healthcare, are unjustifiable on every level.

The hospital I in which I was located is a not-for-profit hospital in the Kathmandu valley. Because it is a well-respected hospital and the fees are less than many other places, they see many of the poorer people in the area. However, it is in the Kathmandu valley so even the poor people here are better off than others in the remote areas. In the emergency department I saw largely three types of people. The first category were people who had some dramatic acute condition; traffic collisions, workplace accidents, MIs. These people come in and are treated because it is a matter of life and death. If they, or their families, can't pay, they are referred to social work and their fees are waived.

The second group is people that have the money. The fees are low enough that they will make little or no difference in their lifestyle. A chest x-ray is about $3, the price of a nice lunch in a restaurant, so it is no big deal. These are the people that come in when their 2 year old has a low-grade fever and the sniffles for a day; the teenage girl who comes in with menstrual cramps for the past hour. I am not saying that these people do not deserve healthcare, but the emergency room is not the place for it (I believe I mentioned it is cholera season here and the same number of staff has to take care of an extra 20 beds.) However, most of these people seem to have the opinion that they are entitled to complete and immediate attention. It is unusual for someone to wait longer than 30 minutes to see a doctor and if they do there is angry complaining and threats (which I was told are sometimes carried out). In Canada people often wait much longer and, while they are far from happy about it, they accept that the doctors are working away with patients that may be sicker than they are. This type of explanation carries no weight in the hospital I was at. I don't think this difference is due to Canadian politeness or some defect in the Nepali character. I think a big thing that contributes to the outrage from Nepali patients is the cash they handed over to get in the door. The fact that they paid for service means they want to be served and served now. Moreover, they have no compunction in demanding tests or particular treatments. Why not? They are paying for them. It doesn't matter that the chest x-ray for their 2 year old is exposing them to unnecessary radiation or the antibiotics will do them no good, not to mention that they are taking up more of the doctor’s time.

The third category of patients is those that come in because they really really have to. That $3 could be three (or more) days of income for their entire family and they may have to travel a large (i.e. expensive) distance to even get to the hospital. There is an increase in morbidity and mortality from this delay in treatment that only increases the burden on underprivileged families. They have now lost earning potential, especially in the case of long-term disability. But another consequence that I found particularly discouraging is how this emphasizes all other inequalities in society as well. Gender is a big one. Kids too. The sickest cholera patients I saw, the ones that looked like dried up skeletons in renal failure needing an extra dose of luck along with an IV, were young girls from poor families. It seemed to me that people would wait longer to bring in their sick daughters than their sick sons. In economic terms sons are worth more and so it makes sense, on a certain level, that they would be more willing to make the investment. I don't mean to imply that these families are callous or calculating. They are faced with impossible decisions and it is the girls that suffer the most. And don't forget, the people I saw were the ones that made it to the hospital. There are many more that aren't even able to make the choice because they live too far or have too few resources.

It is true that Nepali society is much more stratified than Canadian. The difference between poor and 'middle class' is astronomical. But with wait times and the centralization of services, there are already a number of obstacles to access in Canada as well. There are plenty of families where it is a challenge to make the paycheck stretch across a month of groceries and any extra expenses required sacrifices somewhere else. Putting up any more obstacles for those people disadvantages the most vulnerable and that would as reprehensible in Canada as it is here in Nepal.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Another week of elective has passed. Well really half week if you take out the two and a half days that my husband and I spent learning about GI complaints from the patient's perspective. With a little time, a lot of water and some help from azythromycin we are back on track.

Last "weekend" (I have been taking Friday and Saturday off though Saturday is the only actual holiday day here) we set out on an excursion through the country side. I have developed a bit of a reputation with my husband for leading him on, what he refers to as "death marches", when we are vacationing. I thought I was prepared with my lonely planet map and description but we still ended up on an uncertain path with a mini-scramble up a steep hill to a nearly un-named town. Eventually we made it to the appropriate destination. He had said he wanted to venture off the beaten track.

While I am a bit of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed anomaly in the urban Patan, I am a near alien walking through the more rural towns a short 45 minute walk away, especially those with no real road to them. People are pretty friendly after a moment of open-mouthed staring. But a person can get used to just about anything, even being a two person parade. I thought I was doing pretty good getting used to the staring, the noise, the crowds, the garbage, the pollution and the lack of order here until Monday afternoon when my husband and I both came down with diarrhea, fever with chills (really bad for him; not too bad for me) and vomiting (just me). The result of some unidentified gastric transgression we had committed the Saturday before no doubt. Nothing makes you homesick like actually being sick.

But I was back at work by Thursday and, feeling a little bit of med student guilt, took today (Friday) off for another excursion). Hopefully this one won't make us pay the same physical price. We had a really good day visiting the Swayabhunath stupa (also called Monkey temple), the National Museum (interesting art, creepy taxidermy and lots of weapons) and then walking into Thamel in Kathmandu. My husband booked a trip out to Chitwan National Park to hopefully see some nature (other than stray dogs and crows).