Who will hold the reins of private hospitals?
It is common knowledge that the cost of Covid-19 treatment is much higher in private hospitals than in public ones, like all treatments basically. But how much higher, we didn't know. We do now thanks to a study conducted by the Health Economics Unit of the health ministry, and the revelation is quite startling. While the government spends an average of Tk 1.28 lakh for the treatment of a Covid-19 patient in general beds and Tk 4.08 lakh for those treated in intensive care units (ICU), in case of private hospitals, the average cost is much, much higher—around Tk 2.42 lakh in general beds and around Tk 5.09 lakh in ICU beds. Treatment of Covid-19 patients is free in government hospitals, barring the expenses of diagnostic tests and medicine. But the costs in private hospitals are completely borne by the patients. The inequality between the two groups of treatment-seekers couldn't be more pronounced.
The major differences were found in diagnosis and medicine costs which, according to experts, were due to private hospitals not following the national Covid-19 treatment protocol. They are charging abnormally high fees for these services, emboldened by the total lack of scrutiny by the relevant authorities. Just think, the diagnosis cost alone was 17.7 percent of the total expenses in private hospitals, over seven times higher than the diagnosis cost in public hospitals, as the study revealed. The fact that these hospitals can charge whatever they please and get away with it, no matter what the consequence, speaks volumes about the sorry state of private-sector healthcare in Bangladesh. This is not just an ethical issue. It's a crime against the people, when they are at their most vulnerable. This is what happens when corporate profit becomes the underlying impetus of the treatment campaign. Short of a functional central oversight mechanism, ordinary patients are fair game in such an environment.
The question is: whose responsibility is it to ensure the private sector doesn't corporatise Covid-19 treatment? Clearly, with the limited number of public hospitals, it's the private sector that has to bear the burden of treatment for the majority of the patients. It will be unfair to say they are totally failing at that job. But the obscene profits that most private hospitals are making at the expense of patients, without any oversight from the government, run contrary to the spirit of humanity shown by certain members of the private sector, most recently by Gonoshasthaya Kendra. The GK's recent initiative to "bring hospital at the doorsteps of patients"—by dispatching mobile medical teams in different patients of the capital and providing diagnostic services and treatment at subsidised rates—is an example of what the private sector, and its public counterpart, can do to serve the nation at this hour of crisis. That the opposite is happening is mostly a failure of the health authorities. The government must discipline the private sector and ensure no one can exploit the patients by overcharging. The national Covid-19 treatment protocol must be enforced without any exception.