Times Editorial - A healthy hospital service - 30/6/2007

A healthy hospital service

link to The Times of Malta

The Prime Minister today officially opens Mater Dei Hospital. One could fall again on the Latin tongue and exclaim Deo Gratias as the realisation of this hospital has had a stormy and controversial gestation.

Work at this site had started way back in 1995 when it was intended to be a specialist hospital. The Labour government in 1996 radically changed the plans and decided to expand the hospital so as to replace St Luke's Hospital as Malta's general hospital. Two years later, with the return of the Nationalist government, the plans were changed again as it was decided to increase the size of the hospital further.

Throughout, it has been plagued by accusations of incompetence and corruption that have raised serious questions about the delays and costs incurred. To his credit, Lawrence Gonzi took the bull by the horns and negotiated an ironclad deadline within clear cost parameters.

The hospital does not come cheap and its final cost went up to Lm250 million, including VAT. The investment in the building and equipment has been considerable and we are promised a state-of-the-art hospital that should be the envy of the Mediterranean.

However, there is more to a hospital than a building and equipment. No hospital service can maintain its standards without a professionally-managed, motivated and fairly remunerated staff.

There is widespread and deep-seated concern about the shortage of medical and nursing staff as well as their disheartening working conditions. It is a well known fact that the medical and nursing professions have to augment their incomes by doing private work after hours. This is an unsatisfactory situation. It is discouraging to hear Paul Pace, president of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, say that the people he represents are near breaking point. He did not mince his words in presenting a sorry picture where he claims that the service is beset by grave shortcomings such as poor working conditions, lack of job satisfaction, career progression and appreciation.

The same applies to medical personnel. It is well known that their conditions and poor career prospects have led to a shortage in this equally vital sector. The Maltese medical service is already suffering from an inexorable loss of too many doctors seeking employment elsewhere, in the EU and beyond.

Unless there is an adequate investment in the human resources necessary to run the government medical services, the quality of service risks running into intractable problems. One is also concerned about the standards of maintenance and cleanliness; standards that very often are conspicuous by their absence in government-run medical services. To match the investment in the hospital, the management of Mater Dei Hospital must set a benchmark in the level of service. This can only be achieved by providing good working conditions and promoting a climate of evenhanded discipline.

In any project, especially projects of this size, it is well known that recurrent costs are much more difficult to meet than the capital expenditure. Inadequate funding and mismanagement would cripple the projected high standards of service.

A general hospital, no matter how sophisticated, has also got to form part of a holistic structural plan for a country's health services. One hopes that other equally vital medical services are not sacrificed to meet the running costs of the new hospital. The health centres come immediately to mind.

All people of goodwill desire that the new hospital will be a success.

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