This column first appeared in Malta Today
It is the height of flu season, and this year there is a particularly nasty strain of the virus, which means that our health care services are stretched to the limit.
We also have an ageing population, who are more susceptible to illness, so it stands to reason that right now the emergency department at Mater Dei is bursting with elderly patients being brought in.
On top of this we have to add an undeniable fact: the unplanned influx of foreign nationals who have come here for work and who are rightfully entitled to free healthcare, have placed an added burden on this one national hospital of ours and the assorted health centres, which were simply not designed with a population explosion in mind. Please don’t mis-read this as one of those ‘go back to your country’ rants. I am in no way blaming these workers because they have been encouraged to come here. Those who contribute to the economy and are paying NI contributions are very much entitled to medical services, but the naked truth cannot be disputed: the more numbers flock to Mater Dei and the health centres, the more difficult it becomes for all concerned, from the medical staff who are over-worked, to the patients who have to wait longer to be treated. (Of course, there is the option to go private, which is still relatively affordable especially if the matter is not urgent).
On the other hand, having recently witnessed the excellent care at Mater Dei first-hand, it is also undeniable that without foreign workers there would be a gaping shortage in the services which are provided. From the carers, cleaners and porters, to nurses, physios, doctors and the top-most consultants and specialists, there is a whole network of foreign nationals who are providing an important contribution and making it possible for the hospital to function at a high standard. Working side by side with their equally dedicated and professional Maltese counterparts, it is truly a United Nation of sorts, and it was a refreshing change to see the banter and camaraderie between colleagues of all races in what is often a highly stressful work environment. There is, frankly, no time for petty prejudice, racism or bigotry when the lives and the wellbeing of patients are in your hands.
Of course, the language barrier is sometimes a problem with Maltese-speaking patients but I saw a real willingness on the part of foreign nationals who have picked up colloquial expressions and phrases in order to communicate, especially with those who are elderly and most vulnerable. In fact, it is this latter cohort which requires the most attention because the carers who are entrusted with them tend to be of different nationalities, and the Maltese seem to be in the minority for this category of hospital staff. A lesson in basic Maltese for carers is definitely needed, on the same lines of the basic course being offered by the Institute for Tourism Studies for those working in the hospitality industry. When an elderly patient whose only language is Maltese is in distress, it can aggravate their situation if the health care professional cannot understand them.
The questions begs themselves: why don’t more Maltese people want to become carers? Is it the low pay, the lack of vocation for this admittedly challenging role, the working conditions, or simply becuase the job and what it entails is not appealing? Perhaps there needs to be a concerted effort to encourage Maltese speakers to apply for these health care posts on the premise that Maltese speakers for the growing elderly population are in high demand. It also goes without saying that it should be decently paid.
Viewing this situation over the last few days, it occurred to me more than once that the hospital is a microcosm of how Malta should be (and in some cases is), where it does not matter what colour your skin is or where you were born, because you all have one aim in mind: to get the job done as properly and efficiently as possible for optimum results. I have seen this in other work environments such as restaurants and cafes, where everyone is pulling the same rope in order to serve clients, but it is even more crucial at a hospital where the members of the public you are serving are there at a time of great stress, pain and anxiety and they and their relatives need constant reassurance that they are being given top-notch care.
This is not to say there are no shortcomings; I am sure there are those who will recount their own experience where they feel they did not receive the best health care possible. But the sheer volume of patients the hospital has to deal with is something which cannot be discounted. It is for this reason that non-critical cases are urged to use health centres instead, to allow the hospital and especially the emergency services to be used for potentially life or death cases. I am also a firm believer in the adage that you should treat people in the same way you wish to be treated. Courtesy, politeness and kindness go a long way, both when you are the one dealing with the public as well as if you are on the receiving end.
On a final note, as long as we are going to continue encouraging a foreign workforce, there is clearly a dire need for some long-term planning in the form of more health facilities. One of the best suggestions I have read in a long time came from artist Ray Piscopo who posted the following status on FB: “Instead of having multitudes of ambulances with wailing sirens going to the south of the island (at very frequent times), why doesn’t the government take ownership of the ruins of Jerma Palace and set it up as a hospital decentralised from Mater Dei with its own Emergency and Gynae units, cum ambulances and fire engines? This would take off pressure from the main hospital.”
It is a solution which is perfect in its simplicity, which would transform a derelict place into something useful for the country rather than lumping us with yet another block of cubbyhole apartments. It would simultaneously cut down on traffic and the waiting times for those who live in the south or when accidents happen in that area. And, as Mr Piscopo points out, it would mean that Mater Dei does not remain the only national hospital. From what I have seen, I think this dire need for another smaller public hospital is already being felt.