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EDITORIAL | Sunday, 29 June 2008

New hospital, old habits


On Wednesday 25 June, MaltaToday Midweek published the disquieting story of Mrs Elena Micallef: a 75-year-old lady who was left to wait for three days at Mater Dei’s casualty department with a broken wrist, before having to resort to a private hospital for an operation which cost €3,800.
Mrs Micallef fell and broke her wrist on Sunday 8 June, and was taken to Mater Dei immediately. She waited four hours at the casualty department to have a blood sample taken, after which her wrist was placed in a temporary half-cast. But when she returned the following day at 8am for her scheduled operation, as requested by hospital staff, she was made to wait another nine hours until 5pm, only to be told that her operation had been postponed indefinitely. Furthermore the doctor on duty informed Micallef’s family that no guarantee could be given that Mrs Micallef would be operated upon the next day, or indeed any day that week. In fact, the doctor admitted to not knowing when Mrs Micallef’s operation would be slotted into the waiting list.
In the course of this ordeal, it also transpires that hospital staff misplaced Mrs Micallef’s blood samples twice. Eventually, the patient was forced to have the operation done at St James Hospital at her own expense.
There is more. Apart from having to pay a considerable sum for an operation that should have been provided for free, it transpires that the same surgeon who eventually operated upon Mrs Micallef at St James was also on duty at Mater Dei Hospital on the day Mrs Micallef was first admitted.
All things told, then, the above story appears to confirm this newspaper’s suspicions - also shared by the Medical Association of Malta - that for all the glitz and glamour with which the long-awaited new hospital was presented to the general public almost exactly a year ago, many of the questionable practices which had plagued the service at St Luke’s Hospital have also been carried over wholesale to Mater Dei.
But most remarkable of all was the astonishing official reaction from the Health Ministry to our Wednesday story: which, rather than address the issues raised, chose instead to launch a virulent attack upon the source of the complaint – in other words, a 75-year-old lady with a broken wrist.
The tone of the government’s reaction is little short of reprehensible, immediately setting out to belittle and belie Mrs Micallef’s claims. And yet, while picking out ancillary inconsistencies of virtually no importance whatsoever, the statement makes no reference at all to any of the more serious charges: for instance, the double-misplacement of blood samples, which, in more serious cases could mean the difference between life and death.
Furthermore, the ministry seems to justify Mrs Micallef’s ordeal by pointing out that the emergency department had to deal with 93 cases that day, when there were 14 nurses and only three carers on duty. In so doing, government ironically confirms that the problem of understaffing has been inherited from St Luke’s, despite numerous assurances to the contrary by John Dalli’s predecessor, Louis Deguara.
Besides, apart from displaying a singularly aggressive intolerance towards any form of criticism, the health ministry’s reaction is also fraught with contradictions.
For instance, the crux of the MaltaToday story last Wednesday was the agonising three-day wait for surgery which never materialised. Just a few weeks ago, the minister of social policy, whose responsibility includes health, John Dalli likewise criticised the selfsame problem, arguing in parliament that the waiting lists at Mater Dei Hospital were “unacceptable”.
This unexpected outburst led to a public spat between John Dalli and Deguara, who claimed to be “hurt” by the accusation, and who argued that Dalli evidently did not understand the nature and character of the problem.
And yet, no sooner does a newspaper put a human face to the phenomenon of waiting lists – the same phenomenon that Dalli himself so loudly decried less than a month ago – than the same ministry suddenly defends the very waiting list he previously criticised, by opening a vicious broadside on the patient herself.
We will leave our readers decide whether this is acceptable behaviour on the part of the ministry responsible for health. But government must be reminded that his ministry’s knee-jerk reaction to public criticism is all but indistinguishable from the type of behaviour this country used to experience in the 1970s and 1980s.
They say that old habits die hard. With the advent of Mater Dei Hospital, the best that can be said is that now, at least, they have a state-of-the-art mortuary to ease their passing.

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