Health Minister Alexander Laloo Hek recently refused to accept a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which highlighted the shortage of doctors in government hospitals and health facilities across the state. Downplaying the report, Hek said that the health department is working hard to improve health facilities across the state. Interestingly, Hek also made comparisons of the situation in this regard in Meghalaya with other states in the country by saying that there are a number of states where the number of doctors is much less. This does little to vindicate the minister as one cannot use a short yardstick to justify a problem that is not being solved. Complaints abound in the state of shortage of medical staff, especially in the rural areas where more often than not, a single public health facility or a Community Health Centre caters to the needs of a number of villages in one area. Several NGOs for that matter have highlighted such problems from as many rural areas but till date, little is being done to address it. While the rules specify that there should be at least two doctors posted in each of these health facilities, it is often found that many are having to do with the services of just one doctor. The same is the case when it comes to nurses and other medical staff.
Taking note of this problem faced in several pockets of the state, the government had earlier decided to outsource the operations of some of these health centres to ‘foundations’ and ‘trusts’, a move which only made matters worse. Under the care of these entities, matters in the health centres went from bad to worse. The skeletal staff in some of these facilities were not being paid on a regular basis, the medical services were kept at a bare minimum resulting in untold suffering for the rural folk who had nowhere else to turn for their medical needs. Bad paymasters also resulted in a number of staff members deserting their posts.
Hopefully all this is about to change with Union Finance Minister tabling the Union budget which saw an increase of 137 per cent being allocated to the health sector. With an allocation of Rs 2,23,846 crore to the health sector, the central government seeks to address the many shortcomings that were exposed in the sector during the Covid-19 pandemic. Primary healthcare, one of the most critical elements, will see a quantum leap with more health and wellness centres being set up in both the rural and urban areas. In this context, Meghalaya would do well to enforce the bonds signed with medical students and ensure that they keep to the agreements to serve in the state. The state government has to ensure better facilities in the rural health centres to do away with the argument of most doctors who are unwilling to serve in the rural areas because of a ‘lack of infrastructure’. Simply enforcing penalties for not keeping the bonds signed will not solve the problem of Meghalaya’s shortfall of doctors, especially in the rural areas of the state.