Friday, December 23, 2011

Doctors' Strike Exposed Rot in the Health Sector

Lukoye Atwoli
18 December 2011

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union called off the doctors' strike on Wednesday last week after some confusion on Tuesday about whether the strike was on or off. This was done after the union membership was convinced that the interests of the common citizen had been addressed, among other things. Today, it is important to reflect upon the effects of this strike.

For the first time in the history of this country, a trade union organised a strike largely with public interest at the core of it. Among the demands the doctors' union had, the most prominent included construction of more health facilities, equipping existing facilities, training and hiring of more health workers and increasing government spending on health.

The union called off the strike after the government admitted that things were not right in the health sector and made commitments to address the concerns raised by the union. Apart from committing to improve the pay of doctors and other health workers, the government agreed to form a joint task force with the union to deliberate on the way forward in addressing the medium and long-term issues raised by the union.

Quite apart from the fact that the government agreed to work with the doctors' union to improve the health sector in our country, the strike also achieved important milestones.

Importantly, the doctors' strike exposed the rot that exists in the health sector. Many Kenyans did not know that government expenditure on health as a proportion of total spending had been declining over the years. This has been happening despite our commitment to the Abuja Declaration that bound governments to ensure that health sector expenditure be raised to 15 per cent of that total government expenditure.

The result of declining health funding has been enormous. Health facilities have remained few and far between, and those that are available have had neither adequate staffing nor appropriate equipment to carry out basic functions of a health facility. There have also been difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified manpower, with the result that some critical health programmes in the country are solely dependent on donor funding.

The doctors' strike also exposed the dearth of leadership in the ministries of health. Throughout the crisis, both ministers were conspicuously absent. Conveniently, it was reported that they had gone abroad for treatment. How ironic that on the eve of the doctors' strike, those that were supposed to deal with it needed to seek the services of doctors outside the country!

Their absence, as well as the bungling display by the assistant minister and permanent secretary in the ministry of Medical Services, raised serious questions. By failing to provide leadership during these critical moments, the ministers might have been communicating to government that they agree with the doctors' union that there is a problem in the health sector but had no power to deal with the issues raised.

Indeed, a few days before the strike, the minister for medical services had indicated in a newspaper column that there were forces beyond his control that were determined that he does not achieve much in his docket. That it took the Treasury's intervention to end the strike may bear out this claim.

It is irresponsible to play politics with the lives of Kenyans, and the principals must act with speed to end this charade.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine

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