16 June 2017

Zimbabwe: Soaring Health Costs - Poor Caught in Death Trap

Photo: The Herald
Parirenyatwa Hospital is the major public hospital in Zimbabwe.

It is hard to imagine the country's health services were once free. However, 37 years after then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe at Independence in 1980 promised people free access to healthcare, millions of Zimbabweans can no longer afford basic medical remedy due to high treatment costs. Even public health institutions are now in intensive care.

The health sector is failing to provide adequate services, especially to those without medical insurance. More than 11 million Zimbabweans, representing 90% of the population, have no access to medical aid. The country has no national health insurance system despite promises by government to introduce one. This is against a backdrop of a dying public health service, which has forced people to turn to expensive private institutions. The cost of healthcare is escalating beyond the affordability of an average citizen considering over 90% of the country's population is unemployed, while the majority is living on less than US$1 per day.

Thousands are dying each year from preventable and curable diseases, while tens of thousands die due to lack of access to affordable healthcare. To be attended to by a general practitioner, patients without medical aid pay US$20 consultation fees. If the patient is referred to a specialist, she or he forks out between US$40 and US$175 for initial consultation.

The specialist can then refer the patient for further tests such as x-rays and scans at private radiology laboratories, whose costs range from US$275 for an endoscope and more than US$500 for a magnetic resonance imaging scan. Blood tests cost an average US$20 each. For each follow up visit, the patient has to pay between US$30 and US$70. The nightmare starts after diagnosis if the specialist decides surgery is the only treatment to pursue.

Those with medical aid are not spared. Locally, appendectomy surgery costs an average US$1 670, caesarian section; US$1 700, cataract surgery; US$1 770, while hip and knee replacement is US$13 000. Treatment for cancers, such as ovarian, tongue, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and pituitary tumour excision (which affects the head) cost between US$25 000 and US$30 000, while a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which allows the doctor to check for diseases in your body, costs about US$5 000. How many Zimbabweans can afford such high costs when most earn monthly salaries that are below the poverty datum line, which stands between US$430 and US$574 for an average household of five and US$96 for a self-sustaining individual?

After the entire process, the medical bill would have excessively grown; even those with medical insurance have to pay thousands of dollars in shortfalls.

As few Zimbabweans access quality healthcare, Mugabe and his family receive treatment at state-of-the-art health institutions in far flung Singapore, courtesy of the taxpayers' money. Mugabe and his clueless government are to blame for many lives that have been unnecessarily lost due to high medical costs and neglect of the health sector.

History will surely judge them harshly.

Let us discard failed policies


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