"Nepalis are dying because they are poor”
Nepal’s crusading surgeon and health activist Govinda KC has been on hunger strike 19 times since 2012, demanding medical education reform and equitable healthcare. After retiring from his government job, KC has served patients in all 77 districts and other disaster-stricken countries. He is currently at Khandbari District Hospital in Sankhuwasabha where Nepali Times caught up with him.
Excerpt from the conversation:
Nepali Times: What is the state of healthcare in Nepal?
Govinda KC: Most citizens from both urban and rural areas do not have access to healthcare. Many patients are too poor to afford quality treatment, and those who can not get quality care.
The law specifies that 70 types of medicines should be available free of cost in district hospitals, 50 in primary health centres, and 35 in health posts. That is not the case in practice.
Some government hospitals even charge money for medicines that are supposed to be free. And hospital fees are just too expensive, so they end up dying, being disabled for life, or sinking deeper into poverty.
Health facilities in many rural districts are under-equipped, under-staffed and many patients have to return home without treatment. There are no big hospitals there to begin with, and even the urban poor cannot afford priate city hospitals.
Doctors, nurses and office assistants have stuck around in government hospitals only because they are bound by contract. Some hospitals are led by junior non-physicians, making a chaotic and inefficient system.
So, where is the problem?
The problem in providing basic healthcare arises when the local representatives and politicians do not work to provide it. When the 2015 constitution was announced, I was in satyagraha. My only demand was that our representatives be treated in health facilities in the same place as their voters. That demand was not fulfilled.
The Constitution guarantees the citizen's right to health, but elected politicians do not care about health reforms. They are too busy getting rich overnight by commodifying education and health.
I have been fighting to have hospitals and schools in every village, but people prefer to open hospitals in the city. Locals can have access to specialist services at a hospital in their village. This can also help to produce doctors, nurses and public health workers in the provinces. But no one is willing to do that. Politicians are on the payroll of the medical mafia.
Do you regret going through all those hunger strikes?
Many of my demands were not met. Some promises have been made, but not been implemented in practice. But some have been addressed, like the Medical Education Act was formed after multiple satyagraha. Then the Medical Education Commission was formed.
Before the Act, MBBS entrance exams were conducted by colleges and institutes in their own way, but now it is regulated by the Medical Education Commission.
Only those who pass the entrance exams are now eligible for government scholarships and can pick their own college. Action is taken against private institutions if they do not follow the regulations
Now, medical colleges are selected based on their infrastructure, equipment and human resource. Fees have also dropped from Rs7-9 million to Rs4.2 million. Medical school is a lot cheaper now, especially for students who are unable to get scholarships.
Government medical schools charged up to Rs10 million for specialised education. Now, students do not have to pay, but get paid instead. After getting an MD they also need to serve for two years in a place assigned by the government. These contract doctors run the country’s healthcare today
So, the hunger strikes have not been in vain. One of my demands was to have one government medical college in every province. At present, the Karnali Institute of Health Sciences is in operation in Jumla, and the physical infrastructure of Geta Medical College in Dhangadi has been completed. One medical college is soon opening in Dadeldhura after my hunger strike.
Despite this, some goals have been lost to the challenges posed by the alliance of political parties with the mafia. The construction of the Rapti Institute of Health Sciences in Dang was halted due to obstruction from local leaders, and a medical college in Bardibas due to land acquisition issues.
What policies should the government focus on now?
First of all, access to basic services, human resources, equipment and medicine should be extended to people in rural areas and the urban poor. If primary health centres and district and provincial hospitals are improved, then 80-90% of patients do not have to come to Kathmandu for treatment. The government needs to add more human resources to meet the current demand for healthcare.
There should be a 15-bed operational hospital in each municipality. Hospitals should also be made free for people to have quality healthcare. The government should take actions against hospitals that operate without meeting proper standards.
Additionally, the Medical Education Commission, Nepal Medical Council and other organisations should appoint qualified applicants, not political activists. In fact, the practice of hiring contract-based employees should be eliminated. Contract doctors have a higher chance of fleeing if they are not given temporary incentives to stay.
Despite the huge demand for rural doctors, the Public Service Commission opens only 20 seats for doctors each year. This has to change.
Any more hunger strikes?
I am committed to campaigning for medical education reforms. Along with health and education, we are also fighting for good governance and social justice, without which reform is impossible.
I also want to serve in remote areas, which is why I am here in Okhaldhunga. I will fight for people in all parts of the country to have quality, free, affordable and equal access to healthcare as guaranteed by the Constitution for as long as I can.
Read more: Govinda KC treats patients in remote Nepal, Achyutraj Bhandari