Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shambolic Romanian Hospitals

After a series of hospital scandals, the Romanian prime minister is calling for urgent reform of the health service.
By Marian Chiriac

The waiting room at the oncology wing of Bucharest's Fundeni hospital is filled with middle-aged women, their faces creased by the pain and ravages of cancer.

"I started to get accustomed with my current poor state of health," said fifty-seven year-old Maria S, who has been receiving treatment for almost three years for a brain tumour. "It's up to God if I will live for one hour or for one year more."

Maria complains not about her condition, not about her pain - only about the conditions in the hospital and insensitivity and greed of staff, including doctors and nurses.

It seems that nothing has changed in Romania's brutal, often uncaring medical service. Eleven years after the overthrow of the communist regime, the country still has one of the worst health-care systems in the whole of central and eastern Europe.

A maternity clinic in the northeastern Romanian town of Iasi was closed down in mid-August following the deaths of six newborn babies in the space of one week. An enquiry discovered that poor hygiene was to blame. The hospital suffered a small fine.

The maternity clinic bombshell was just one of a number of appalling recent incidents, which prompted Prime Minister Adrian Nastase last month to demand urgent reforms of the "chaotic" sector.

He was especially critical of the pharmaceutical industry which seems particularly inept at both producing or importing necessary medicines.

Funding is low, salaries are low, resources are abysmal. The health ministry has never received more than three per cent of the budget (4.4 million US dollars) over the last decade, despite repeated demands for emergency aid. This has left hospitals wanting for medicines and medical equipment.

The system of funding the medical service through health insurance contributions from workers is not working either. The price of drugs goes up regularly and provokes a chorus of complaints from hospitals and public alike. At the same time, doctors bemoan their tiny salaries - around 150 US dollars a month - and often resort to bribery. In Romania, these days, you won't get a routine check-up without offering a packet of cigarettes or a bottle of whisky.

But the real graft kicks in with a trip to the hospital. "Here, you need to bribe everyone," said a woman who has just gone through the experience. "To get an operation I had to pay almost 100 US dollars for the surgeon's services - not to mention the money for the nurses or for bringing food in from home."

She understands that doctors are severely underpaid and accepts that they need to supplement their salaries with backhanders. But she was shocked when she had to pay nurses just for changing her bed linen.

The lack of care and treatment is not just making lives more difficult - it is shortening them, if figures, especially from rural areas are to be believed.

Life expectancy is about seven years lower in Romania than the European average. Heart disease and cancer are responsible for more than a half the number of deaths of working-age people and for over 85 per cent of deaths amongst the elderly.

A World Health Organization report recently criticised Romania for both lacking any coherent plan for improving its health sector and any real commitment to achieving this goal. Though the prime minister talks of a "turning point", Romania's medical service is clearly still in need of intensive care.

Marian Chiriac is a regular contributor for IWPR