How often have we heard complaints from patients coming to Dhaka from faraway districts that the local hospitals do not have the necessary equipment to give them the treatment they need?
Not many know that many local government hospitals have plenty of medical equipment, worth millions, packed neatly and locked away in the darkest corners of the storerooms.
Most of this equipment has been purchased over the last 10 years or so. They have never seen daylight because either there was inadequate infrastructure – like uninterrupted power supply or properly trained operators – or the equipment was unnecessary and purchased only to fill the pockets of some unscrupulous government officials and contractors.
A recent investigation of the Hospital Management Service (HMS) of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) found that a staggering 133 types of medical equipment and machinery are lying idle in the storerooms of 21 government hospitals across seven divisions.
Most of them were never unpacked.
The items includes x-ray, ultrasonography, anesthesia, laparoscopy, autoclave, phototherapy, nebulisers, post-mortem, centrifuge machines, incubators, generators, hydraulic operation theatre tables, cardiac monitors, operation tables, overhead multimedia projectors, sterilisers, air conditioners and infusion pumps.
The investigation report states that most of the equipment, purchased between 2006 an 2011 by the Central Medical Store Depot (CMSD), could not be installed either due to shortage of space or because there were not enough trained operators or because of the negligence of the suppliers.
The investigation also found a number of items, brought between 15 and 23 years ago, yet unpacked.
Officials said the contractors often do not care once they are paid.
A former official of the CMSD said a generator could be worth Tk2.5-Tk3m, anesthesia machine Tk800,000-Tk1m, laparoscopy machine Tk1-Tk1.5m.
According to the HMS probe report, the CMSD handed over an overhead projector, a multimedia projector, a hot-air oven, a hot water bath, a centrifuge machine, a hydraulic OT table, a large steriliser, a still lamp and an air conditioner to the 250-bed Sunamganj Sadar Hospital between 2006 to 2011. Authorities said none of these machines could be installed because there was no space.
The Thakurgaon Modern Sadar Hospital received consignments of a 60KVA generator, an anesthesia machine, an overhead projector and an infusion pump between 2007 and 2012. The packaging of all these items are still to be opened.
A distilled water plant, sent to the Rangamati General Hospital in 1987, has never been installed. The supplier reportedly never responded after he got his bills cleared.
The problem is not one just for the peripheral district. The HMS probe reveals similar happenings in hospitals in some of the divisional headquarters.
The CMSD supplied a hot water bath, a PH meter, an electronic typewriter and a spirometer to the Khulna Medical College Hospital between 2006 and 2009. They were never opened because of a shortage of space. The contractors also never installed them, the probe report said.
Experts said government procurement mechanisms most often do not take into account the prerequisites like infrastructure, availability of trained operators and the credibility of the suppliers before placing orders.
A number of health ministry and DGHS officials, seeking anonymity, said contractors and suppliers often pay bribes in the form of cash, foreign trips and free treatment in foreign hospitals to ministers, high ranking government officials and doctors, to get their orders approved.
Sometimes they supply unnecessary equipment.
There are also allegations that the contractors often do not supply in time and when they eventually do, the quality is not up to the mark.
Local hospitals have to spend the equipment funds allocated to them annually or else these funds go back to the ministry.
Ministry officials said sometimes, in order to avoid returning the funds, local officials make unnecessary purchases.
DGHS Director General Prof Dr Khondoker Md Sifayet Ullah however rejected allegations that government officials took bribes.
He told the Dhaka Tribune it was very sad that these machines were kept unused and locked in boxes.
The directorate have already started looking into ways of bringing these machines into use as soon as possible and has decided to refrain from purchasing large and expensive equipment from now on, he said.
Prof Sifayet Ullah added that the DGHS had also begun purchasing only necessary equipment for related hospitals.