At a time when the profession of medicine practised under the hallowed Hippocratic Oath has become a source of making a fast buck, if not a business, it was heartening to read the story of the veteran physician Dr. Vinitha Ranjani Gunawardena (the story appears on page 10). She sought no publicity but somehow this inspiring story made headlines in the print and electronic media in the past few weeks, serving as a lesson to other medial officers or consultants.
The retired 85-year-old consultant paediatrician had more than 35 years ago volunteered to serve in the poverty-stricken Mahaveli village of Dehiattakandiya. Though Government medical officers are expected to serve in what are known as ‘difficult areas’ for about three years, Dr. Gunawardene opted to stay on there to be the family doctor of thousands of poor people. Initially her dispensary was under a tree, but she got an old dilapidated building to conduct her clinics where she served the poorest of the poor in a selfless sacrificial spirit. After she retired she lived in a storeroom belonging to the Mahaweli project. Her only worldly possessions were a plank bed and some old chairs on which were perched her companions, several dogs and cats.
This extraordinary story of a great human being drew so much attention that Dr. Gunawardena recently had some unexpected visitors at her humble abode in the dense jungle. These visitors included Health Services Director General Dr. Palitha Mahipala, the Health Services Director in the Ampara district and the Mahaoya Hospital Superintendent. They spoke to her for about four hours during which she recalled her school days at Ladies’ College Colombo, her medical service at the Lady Ridgway hospital and other institutions and how she decided to go to the thick jungle area to serve and heal the poor people. She told Dr. Mahipala and other visitors that her eyesight was poor and she needed to undergo surgery so that she could teach English to the poor children in Dehiattakandiya. They immediately arranged for an ambulance to take her to the Polonnaruwa hospital and she left assuring her four-legged friends, ‘don’t worry I’ll come back soon’.
More than four decades ago, when medical doctors were allowed to do private practice, charging of fees used to be on a 3 to 1 basis—that was Rs 15 for the doctor and Rs 5 for the hospital. Today the minimum charge for channel consultation in private hospitals is Rs. 1,500 while some consultants charge about Rs. 3,000 from a patient.
With government hospitals being overcrowded and most of them often not having essential or life-saving drugs, most people are forced to go to private hospitals or dispensaries. Surveys conducted by health rights groups indicate that where out-patient treatment is concerned, 50 percent of the people mainly from village areas go to Government hospitals while the rest go to private hospitals or dispensaries.
As for patients who need to be warded for treatment, the surveys indicate that only about 20 percent of the people can afford to get admitted to private hospitals because these hospitals have become a booming business today. Some 80 percent of the people, the poor and the lower-middle classes are compelled to go to Government hospitals where they sometimes sit on chairs or benches because the wards are packed. Often the patients in the Government hospitals are asked to buy their medicinal drugs from private pharmacies or take various tests at private clinics. If they cannot afford to do so then the consequences are grave. As health has been put in the market, the poor are left to die. We could only hope that Sri Lanka could produce more doctors like Dr. Vinitha Ranjani Gunawardena.