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Health plan on the anvil, panel in place

Calcutta, Jan. 1: Mounting popular mistrust of healthcare in the state and a rap from the high court prodded the chief minister today to declare that his government was working on a new health policy.

Addressing a programme to mark the first anniversary of the West Bengal Health Sciences University, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said the new policy would revolve around introducing modern facilities in hospitals, uniformity in medical education and treatment and prompt and sincere attention to patients.

The government today also set up a six-member committee to supervise health administration. The committee was formed following a high court order asking the government “to bear the burden of compensation” in future for every citizen who suffers because of the health department’s “lack of sensitivity and lackadaisical approach”.

Health secretary Asim Burman said former chief justice of Bombay High Court Chittatosh Mukherjee will head the panel, which will submit its report to the government in six months.

A Calcutta High Court division bench of chief justice A.K. Mathur and Justice A.K. Banerjee had asked the government to set up the committee while responding to a public interest litigation that ascribed political reasons to the series of child deaths in Murshidabad in May.

In the absence of a declared plan, the government follows the two-decade-old National Health Policy. The new plan will emphasise:

• Procuring modern medical equipment.

• Research and development.

• More private-government partnerships.

• Wooing non-resident Bengali doctors back and helping them set up healthcare institutions that will cater to the masses.

• Creating more centres of excellence in hospitals similar to the existing ones in ophthalmology, haematology and surgery.

• Improving work culture and ensuring prompt patient care.

In the past year, the government was jolted by a series of deaths in hospitals, mainly because of the negligence of doctors and paramedical personnel. Even SSKM, the apex teaching hospital in the state, was on the list of institutions accused of callousness. The deaths invited criticism from political opponents, the media and the judiciary.

Bhattacharjee today urged his colleagues in the health department to “engage in self-assessment” to weed out the grey areas in healthcare.

While referring to the salient features of the new policy, Bhattacharjee said creating centres of excellence in hospitals and bringing uniformity to medical education in the state’s seven medical colleges by drafting them into the health sciences university was the first step towards improving healthcare.

“There are hundreds of NRI doctors from Bengal working in the US, who want to come back to their roots, but lack of proper infrastructure is acting as a hindrance. I have seen a lot of them during a visit to Chicago and I am hopeful that with efforts to improve things in Bengal, a lot of them will come back to strengthen our healthcare system,” Bhattacharjee added.

The government can spend grants from foreign institutions worth more than Rs 220 crore in earmarked health improvement projects till April 2006. Health department officials said more grants are in the offing. Bhattacharjee said: “We have a lot of plans. The immediate venture is a centre of excellence in cancer for which we need central funds.”

Health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra echoed Bhattacharjee when he spoke about giving greater autonomy to the hospitals and medical colleges. “We hope that with more autonomy and power, they won’t have to rush to us all the time,” he said.

In a step in this direction, the government recently upgraded the post of the hospital superintendent to vice-principal and is now in the process of connecting all hospitals online.

The chief minister reiterated that the government was keen on more private-government initiatives in the health sector.

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