When the Government first decided to allow channelled consultation in private hospitals more than 45 years ago, the fee was 4 to 1 - that is Rs.20/= for the consultant and Rs. 5/= for hospital costs.
Costs and other factors have changed now and in most private hospitals the consultation fee is between Rs. 1,500/= and Rs. 2,000/= for the medical specialist and at least Rs. 500/= for hospital costs. Though in some hospitals the patients do not have even a seat at the waiting area, they sometimes are forced to wait for one, two or three hours while the consultant often sees a patient for only about five minutes. Often the consultants prescribe several varieties of drugs, not in their generic names as taught in medical schools, but highly-expensive brand names taught to the consultants by unqualified medical representatives of trans–national pharmaceutical corporations (TNCs).
If tests, some of them non–essential, are prescribed, then the patient may have to pay between Rs. 5,000/= and Rs. 10,000/=. If a CT scan is prescribed, then the cost may soar to about Rs. 15,000/=. In some private hospitals, some so-called super consultants are known to charge between Rs. 6,000/= and Rs. 10,000/= for urgent cases and many desperate patients pay this amount. Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena has said he was charged Rs. 8,000/= for one consultation and he described it as a ruthless plunder of patients.
It is in this context that the Private Health Services Regulatory Council (PHSRC) has written to all private hospitals directing that the maximum consultation fee must be Rs. 2,000/= and the maximum hospital fee Rs. 250/=.
PHSRC Director Dr. Kanthi Ariyaratne has said the PHSRC had received many complaints from patients, health action groups, the Consumer Affairs Authority and the Presidential Secretariat that consultants and private hospitals were extorting money from helpless patients. She has said that all private hospitals have also been directed that the consultation fee and hospital costs should be displayed prominently for all to see.
The Health Minister has said that despite pressure from some consultants, he had the blessings of the President to introduce laws for the regulation of consultation fees and hospital costs so that even ordinary people would have access to such services.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association, which in recent months has pro-actively been getting involved in social justice campaigns against imitation milk and agro-chemicals, is reacting somewhat negatively on this issue. GMOAs President Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya has asked why the Government is regulating the fees charged by medical consultants only, and not the fees charged by other professionals such as lawyers, engineers and architects. He said their fees also must be regulated.
With due respect to Dr. Padeniya and while thanking him for taking the GMOA to the heights of social justice crusaders, we need to remind Dr. Padeniya that the work done by lawyers or architects cannot be compared to the vocation of healthcare. The eminent surgeon Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke, who retired this month, has been widely praised for his work where he saw the patients and the ward as sacred, and surgery not as a profession but as a vocation like the priesthood. Starting in Polonnaruwa, Dr. Goonetilleke is known to have worked with commitment and dedication in line with the Hippocratic Oath, and the legendary parable of the Good Samaritan.