For the poor in GB, cardiac treatment spells crippling financial strain
By: Shabbir Mir
GILGIT: Farid Khan has been confined to his small house in the Konodas area of Gilgit town for quite some time. Following a major heart surgery in Islamabad recently, the 63-year-old trader who would spend between 12 and 14 hours at his shop now shuns most outdoor activities, choosing instead to remain indoors.
“But it’s not because of my health,” says Khan. “My treatment had inflicted a financial crisis and sucked all of my resources.”
Acting on a local doctor’s advice after suffering a minor heart attack, Khan underwent heart surgery at a private hospital in Islamabad. “For us, the closest we can get to better health facilities is Rawalpindi or Islamabad — 600km away from home,” he explains.
Khan isn’t the first person from the Gilgit-Baltistan region to seek treatment outside GB owing to a lack of angioplasty, angiography and bypass facilities, not to mention a shortage of qualified doctors.
It seems strange that GB — inhabited by 1.5 million people in an area spread over 72,971 square kilometres — doesn’t have a single cardiac unit.
Shut inside his three-room single-storey house, Khan now worries about how he could afford to pay for the health and education of his family of six. He has no solution in mind at this point.
While the Pakistan International Airline’s ATR flights from Islamabad to GB are mostly subject to weather conditions, the journey by road isn’t any easier. It could take over 16 hours of zigzagging through the Karakoram Highway on a good day.
The long commute adds to the risks patients take to seek treatment, says Usama Khan, a doctor practising at a private hospital in Lahore. “Yet many cardiac patients from GB visit us every year, accompanied by many attendants.”
Masood Ahmad from Gilgit underwent cardiac treatment last year at a private cardiac hospital in Islamabad. “They inserted four stents and charged me a million rupees,” says Ahmad, who works at an NGO.
“The cost of medicine following the treatment, coupled with the amount required to stay in Islamabad for follow-up checkups with at least an attendant means that a patient would have to spend thousands of rupees more [than the amount quoted for the treatment],” says Ahmad. He terms this a flight of capital from the already poor GB to other parts of the country.
The construction of a cardiac hospital in GB has long been on the cards. The previous government under the Pakistan Peoples Party remained unable to pick out land for the project throughout its five-year term and the then health minister, Gulbar Khan, attributed the delay to a sectarian dispute over the location. He had claimed that the leaders of both the Shia and Sunni communities wanted the hospital to be constructed in their areas.
However, the current government has managed to make some progress, albeit at a snail’s pace. The government has recently approved a PC-I for the hospital titled, “Establishment of 50-bed Cardiac Hospital (Phase-I) at Gilgit at a cost of Rs1513.303 million”.
“The land for the hospital has been identified and our work is progressing on a fast track…you will see the hospital up in our tenure,” says Aurangzeb Khan, parliamentary secretary on law and interior — a close aide to Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman.
These announcements, however, mean little to Farid Khan, who believes that the government’s claims have always been hollow. “If you’re a poor heart patient from GB, stay home and wait for the inevitable. Going for treatment to Islamabad or elsewhere means you will end up killing yourself physically and the family, financially.”
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017