LETTER FROM MINDANAO: Rx: see your doctor

UPPER BULANAN, Midsayap, North Cotabato (MindaNews/24 October) – Barangay health worker Evelyn Dojinog Homena, points to a small structure made of wood, a few meters from the roofed stage where the American doctor, a major in the US Armed Forces, is tending to some patients.

“That,” the midwife smiles, “is our barangay health center.”

The center, however, is not open 24/7 to serve the 3,000 villagers in this upland village 7.1 kilometers from downtown Midsayap.  It is open only on Wednesdays as Evelyn has other tasks. She also has to attend to the health needs of  villagers in the next barangay, Arizona.

Last Friday, October 19,  Major Talib Ali, an American doctor from the US Air Force, Philippine Army personnel and municipal health workers came to this village to tend to the sick, or at least show a semblance of  “treating” some patients, because really, what can a “medical mission” of two hours do?

So that explains what Dr. Shaun Alderman of  the US Special Operations Task Force,  said a day earlier in Barangay Lower Olandang,  that it was their third medcap (medical civic action program) for the day. And that also explains why the three teams (with one US military doctor each) managed to conduct medcaps in 15 villages in one and a half days.

Imagine what two hours can do?

On Thursday, there was Dr. Alderman taking time to understand what the patient was complaining about because of the language barrier. Translations from English to Maguindanao and Maguindanao to English in Lower Olandang and English to Cebuano and Cebuano to English in Upper Bulanan,  take a lot of time.

With 30 patients lined up for consultation in the two-hour medical mission of the Philippine and US Army and the Municipal Health Office here, that means four minutes per consultation. Remember, this includes translation time so what can (less than) four minutes do?

Poor Dr. Ali, the lone Muslim among the American doctors in the three teams. With the language barrier, with very limited time and limited supply of medicines and without diagnostic facilities to help him accurately diagnose the patients’ ailment, what can he do?

He ended up asking rural health nurse Falconeri Avelino, to translate this to every patient sent his way:  “Unfortunately, we’ve run out of a lot of medicines (or we don’t have those medicines) ….  but we can give you some multivitamins…”

How many multivitamins? At the start, 20 per patient. Much later, only 10.

Poor doctor but poorer the patient, for if she expected cure for her ailment,  she won’t get it from this medical mission. Also, what can 10 or 20 multivitamins do? They’re just palliatives, if at all they can be considered such.

And when they’ve taken the last multivitamin, what?

In fairness to Dr. Ali, he would always remind the patients that if symptoms persist, ”please go see your doctor.” Unfortunately, that message may work for Americans in America but not for Filipinos in the rural areas in the Philippines who could actually die without seeing a doctor or a nurse.

Because really, where IS the doctor?  At least seven kilometers downhill. And seeing a doctor means spending money for fare, laboratory and fees which the villagers are likely unable to afford.

Then again, are there still doctors around?

At the awarding of The Outstanding Filipino Physician (TOFP) at the Manila Hotel Thursday night, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said that for every 100 health professionals in the country, 88 go abroad.

It’s not as if we do not produce very good doctors, nurses and other health professionals. It’s just that most of them are abroad; in fact, most of them are, ironically, in the country of soldier-doctors Alderman and Ali.

But it does not mean that just because we have no doctors around, I would change my mind about medical missions, whoever is paying for it (Alderman says it’s the Armed Forces of the Philippines; a Filipino military official and barangay health worker said the supplies are “locally purchased but US-funded.”)

They’re a very expensive propaganda tool that will not even “win hearts and minds” for either the Philippine or American military. For who in his right mind can imagine he can “win hearts and minds” of villagers in two hours?

Also, why are we wasting so much taxpayers’ money on a token health “service” (if at all that can be classified as “service.”) It takes a lot of money to deploy at least 45 soldiers to provide security to 12 to 15 American soldiers, only three of whom are doctors, none of them a nurse, the rest of them security personnel or “technical experts” (in the battlefield, by the way).

And where are our own military doctors? If this were a joint effort, why is the Army serving only as area security?

It takes a lot of funds to gas up vehicles and if it is true it’s the AFP paying for these medcaps, then that means including those huge made-in-America vehicles the American troops are using?

Then, too, goodies such as umbrellas, shirts and bullcaps are expensive as well, especially since the allocations per village could be from 50 to 100 each. Multiply that by 15 villages.

Which brings me to yet another point. Giving away goodies as they do in these medcaps may appear a benign (harmless) act but it’s actually malignant (highly injurious) because if you were to do a peace and conflict impact assessment (PCIA), as they should do in the first place, the goodies end up as a source of conflict precisely because not everybody can be given shirts or umbrellas.

As not everybody can be given free medicines or multivitamins and not everybody can be seen by the doctor.

In this village, for instance, 30 patients represent only 1% of the population and the 30 are not even fully attended to, at four minutes each, translations included. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. You may e-mail the author at carol@mindanews.com)