The findings of our latest opinion survey, whose conclusions are carried elsewhere in this issue, bear out the well-deserved reputation which Malta enjoys for its generally good health service, including hospital treatment (state and private) and highly qualified doctors.
The provision of free medical treatment and free medicine represents an ever-growing slice of government expenditure, which is set to rise further with the opening of the new Mater Dei Hospital and its upkeep; yet even here, the vast majority of our respondents (84.7 per cent) think the expenditure is justified, since the present general hospital, which is over 70 years old, has clearly become inadequate for present-day needs.
This does not mean that there are no complaints. Indeed, our survey found that the most common, as regards state hospital services, is that waiting to be seen is too long, and in fact the whole system of appointments is unsatisfactory to most.
On the other hand, many feel that the cost of private medical treatment and of medicines is too expensive, particularly as this affects mostly old age pensioners enjoying only a modest income. Yet two-thirds of respondents prefer a private medical service. No wonder that a large majority (82 per cent) would like spending on private medicine and treatment to be tax-exempt.
In this connection, given the increasing popularity of private medical insurance, it is felt that the cost of this should be at least partly tax-exempt.
The use of government health centres is more widespread than perhaps thought. Again, the major complaint seems to be long waiting times; also the fact that some doctors do not turn up, and staff shortages.
So it is natural that while believing the huge expense for the new general hospital and its upkeep is justified, people expect, in return, a number of improvements in the health service, namely a general improvement in quality, the elimination of waiting times, greater staff discipline, and that doctors and even specialists work full-time. One could say that from what has been publicly revealed so far, expectations regarding the new hospital and its services are quite high.
On the other hand, one has to realise that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that hospital and medical services are becoming increasingly expensive. Malta boasts of one of the most comprehensive free health services in the world, yet one has to ask whether society as a whole can be expected to continue to bear the rising costs of such services, particularly when it comes to elective surgery, without at least a partial contribution by those benefiting from them