Minister Rajitha, don’t you trust your own health sector ?

In the last couple of weeks Sri Lanka has witnessed a Minister of Higher Education interfering in the national university system by requesting the appointment of an individual to the post of Assistant Lecturer in the Kelaniya University, a Minister of Education banning a child falsely accused of HIV from attending school, and lastly a Minister of Health who doesn’t trust local hospitals. The International Cauldron has already reported on the former two ironies, and therefore this article will look into the latter case.

On the 19th of February, the Sri Lankan Minister of Health Dr. Rajitha Senaratne was flown to Singapore to seek medical treatment. Sri Lankan media outlets were quick to get a hold of this story and report on the health condition of the Minister. According to the reports the Minister had gone for an annual health check-up to Lanka Hospitals, and following the discovery of a minor health complication he was flown to Singapore by an air ambulance for a further medical check-up following which he underwent a bypass surgery. Also, the Health Ministry spokesman reported that the minister was not undergoing an emergency medical procedure, but rather was to undergo a routine surgery on the 24th of February. It has also been claimed that several high-ranking officials within the government had encouraged the Minister to seek immediate medical assistance even if it meant travelling abroad. Instantly, numerous criticisms were brought towards the Health Minister for having gone to Singapore for medical treatment, with many medical officers also being highly dissatisfied with this action.

Firstly, as already pointed out by the Colombo Telegraph, the Minister’s choice to seek medical attention overseas calls into question the state of the Sri Lankan health system. Despite being a developing nation and falling back in several areas, healthcare has not been one of them. The Sri Lankan health system is the best in South Asia and has been commended by the WHO on numerous occasions. And while overall Singapore’s medical system may be better than that of Sri Lanka, I do not think that there would have been a significant advantage of having had something as routine as a bypass surgery in Singapore when compared to Sri Lanka. Furthermore, according to reports the initial reason for travelling to Singapore was to get a second-opinion, after which only was the decision made to conduct the surgery. While it is completely normal to get a second-opinion, the question that comes up was whether it was necessary to travel 2700 kilometres to get this advice?

Also, bypass surgeries have become a routine procedure with few complications and the Sri Lanka medical system is perfectly capable of conducting adult bypass surgeries with around 20 surgeries bring carried out per day across the island. Thus the Sri Lanka doctors would have been more than capable of handling this operation.

On the flip side it is rumored that many medical professionals have shown reluctance to get involved in taking cases of high-profile politicians. This is because if something were to go wrong the doctors would be dragged into a legal, political and bureaucratic nightmare even to the extent of being accused of murder. Such a scenario, though unlikely may have been a reason for the Minister choosing to go to Singapore.

Thirdly, while we must acknowledge the right of any individual to seek medical care wherever he pleases, the criticism comes as a result of the position held by this individual. Indeed by far this is not the first case of a public official going abroad to seek medical attention. However the reason why Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has got so much criticism is because he is the Minister of Health. Ideally, a Health Minister is supposed to stand by and defend the profession that he represents. But by choosing to go abroad he has shown his lack of faith towards his own Sri Lankan colleagues. Also by doing this he has gone against the professional ethic of a public official needing to stand by their office. Furthermore, even if the Minister was reluctant to seek treatment in a National Hospital, there are several top-class Private Medical Hospitals that he could have got the same treatment at a fraction of the cost of what he would have had to pay in Singapore. If we were to compare the actual numbers we find that an average bypass surgery in Singapore costs S$25’000 or Rs. 1.5 million, while in a private Sri Lankan hospital it is estimated to only costs around Rs.500,000.

Thus, this brings up the question of how the Minister funded his medical expenses? While I will not make any claims here, there are several questions that come up. Firstly, if the Minister was using public funds to seek treatment it brings to question his integrity. Is it right for the Health Minister to spend several millions from taxpayers’ money to fund his medical expenses while there are still many areas within the healthcare system that could greatly benefit from extra funds? On the other hands, if he was using his own personal funds, it is acceptable. But then again wouldn’t it have been better for him to have pumped that money into the Sri Lankan health sector, instead of helping the upkeep of an already highly developed health system in Singapore?

Lastly, instead of solely blaming the minister, it may also be necessary to put some blame on the Sri Lankan mentality that has developed over the years. This namely is the “inferiority complex” that has developed among Sri Lankans who have come to think that everything foreign is better. This can range from the idea that foreign grown potatoes are somehow better than Sri Lanka ones, to the case presented here where people believe that in all instances going overseas for medical attention is the best option. Indeed there are certain areas of medical treatment that are still not available in Sri Lanka, but bypass surgeries are definitely not one of them.

Though the Minister’s actions are by no means comparable to the atrocity committed by the Education Minister, this case shows Minister Senaratne’s lack of trust in the very system he represents. Thus, this in addition to the other criticisms of nepotism, lack of education, and corruption brought against public officials in recent weeks, brings a heavy blow to the Yahapalana Government. After seeing these interesting spectacles, I wonder what will come next?

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