On Saturday, the Doctors Syndicate embarked a nationwide campaign in public hospitals dubbed “Free Healthcare is Your Right.”
The campaign is due to remain in effect from February 27 until the Doctors Syndicate’s upcoming general assembly on March 25, when the campaign’s impact will be assessed on the national level. Its goals include that all emergency services at public hospitals will be provided free of charge on a 24-hour basis, while all other (non-emergency) medical services will be free of charge from 8am to 2pm.
The movement comes one week after doctors embarked on a string of partial strikes and protests, during which the Health Ministry and mainstream media outlets accused them of endangering patients’ lives. The syndicate adamantly dismissed these accusations as being part of a smear campaign against them, arguing that it endorsed demonstrations in response to acts of police brutality, threats and intimidations at the Matareya Teaching Hospital in order to safeguard conditions in hospitals, for both doctors and patients.
This campaign is also based on the syndicate’s most recent general assembly resolutions, the enforcement of domestic legislation safeguarding affordable healthcare, and covering the medical needs of the Egyptian population, syndicate leadership stated.
“In accordance with national legislation, we are striving to reclaim the right of free medical care to all Egyptian patients, especially as the vast majority of patients at public hospitals are from lower income brackets, with very limited resources at their disposal,” Ehab Taher, secretary of the Doctors’ General Syndicate Council, told Mada Masr.
Taher pointed to specific domestic laws which guarantee the provision of free healthcare at public hospitals, including several prime ministerial decrees, along with Article 18 of the Egyptian Constitution. He added that over the past few years, the state, and specifically the Ministry of Health, had not been abiding by these “basic rights for healthcare.”
“Why does the minister insist on putting his hands into the pockets of poor patients? If it respects the law, the Health Ministry should not expect poor patients to pay medical fees which are beyond their means,” Taher stated.
In a recorded message posted on the Doctors Syndicate website, Secretary General Mona Mina explained that this campaign for free healthcare is not the initiative of the syndicate council, but rather a decision taken by its general assembly (which had convened for an extraordinary session on February 12).
“Healthcare is a right not a commodity,” she stated. This slogan is also being used a hashtag on social media networks to promote free healthcare.
As part of the campaign, public hospitals will now refrain from charging patients any additional fees beyond the entrance ticket, which costs an average of LE1 or LE2. However, both local media outlets and the Doctors Syndicate report that some public hospitals are not abiding by the general assembly resolutions and are still charging patients extra fees for medical services, including laboratory tests, x-rays and pharmaceuticals.
Taher pointed out that the Om al-Masriyeen Hospital in Giza is still charging patients beyond the entrance fee, as is the Ahmed Maher Hospital in Cairo, among others.
According to Taher, the participation of hospital staff in this campaign for free healthcare will be assessed over the next few days and weeks. He added that, with some exceptions, public hospitals in the governorates of Cairo, Sohag, Assiut, and Luxor, have largely been abiding by the campaign on its first day.
Doctors who do not abide by the general assembly’s resolutions of February 12 may be referred to disciplinary hearings at their local branch syndicates.
“Some hospital directors and administrators are threatening doctors, and insisting that they charge patients more than just the entry fee, because the funds which these hospitals receive translate into large bonuses for senior administrative figures,” said Taher.
Beyond the campaign for free healthcare at public hospitals and medical institutes, dozens of Egyptian doctors who own private clinics, or who work in private hospitals, have also expressed their willingness to assist in the provision of free medical services. Many private doctors have announced that they will voluntarily offer free treatment to patients for one day, on March 19.
The extent of participation of private-sector physicians in this one-day campaign is yet to be gauged.
In related news, the Youm7 news portal reports that a private initiative of physicians and dentists (scheduled for this week) aims at providing medical caravans/mobile clinics to reach out to patients who cannot access medical treatment easily.
The Ministry of Health has provided similar medical caravans in past years, and is reportedly involved in providing free services to residents of the Southeastern towns of Halayeb and Shalateen, among other remote locations.
Citing the Ministry of Health, Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that the state has helped organize 127 mobile clinics in January 2016 alone. It is reported that a total of 137,410 patients nationwide received free treatment via these caravans.
Taher concluded that he hopes the Health Ministry will work with Doctors Syndicate in providing free healthcare to millions of needy Egyptians, not just in mobile clinics but also in public hospitals.
“The Doctors Syndicate is trying to assist the whole population, we are trying to limit the anger from patients and their families regarding the lack of adequate health services, the lack of medical equipment, and the increased costs of treatment,” Taher said. “In doing so we hope that patients will refrain from lashing out against their doctors for the poor state of public hospitals.”