In the health sector, seeing is believing, now

Health Minister Jo Etienne Abela may have all the good intentions of this world but like the rest of the population we have grown cynical of plans, visuals, ideas, intentions and promises. We will believe him when the works on each of the projects he announced start and conclude

Plans for a new outpatient block at Mater Dei Hospital were approved by the Planning Authority in 2021 but the project never took off the ground. Now, the plans have been scrapped indefinitely. 

Similarly, in 2016, government had announced its intention to build a 300-bed mother and child hospital. Nothing ever came of those plans and the area originally identified for this new hospital wing is now being considered for an expansion of the Emergency Department. 

Another grand plan to build a new mental health hospital near Mater Dei Hospital to replace the ancient facility at Mount Carmel has also fizzled away and instead scaled down to a 100-bed facility for acute care. 

The overall impact of these three grand projects would have been to create new modern spaces, while freeing up areas in the hospital proper to increase the number of beds there. 

The only significant capital investment in health infrastructure that will ease the pressure on Mater Dei during the Labour government’s tenure so far has been the Censu Moran regional medical hub in Paola and the completion of the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology facility, work on which had been started by the previous Nationalist administration. 

The failure to improve the health infrastructure is now a matter of serious concern. Mater Dei Hospital was already suffering from a shortage of beds in 2013 before the population boom started. 

Had the plans materialised as promised, the general hospital would have experienced a growth in bed space in line with the increasing demands on healthcare emanating from a growing population. 

Instead, the Labour government chose to pin its hopes on the public-private partnership deal that saw an obscure company take over the running of three facilities – Gozo General, St Luke’s and Karin Grech. The Vitals deal foresaw the construction of a new general hospital in Gozo, the refurbishment of St Luke’s and its use as a medical tourism hub and upgrading of Karin Grech Rehabilitation Hospital. The private company would have also made hundreds of beds available for the public health service. 

This deal not only floundered with nothing to show for it but was mired in corruption and sleaze at every turn as confirmed by the Auditor General, a magisterial inquiry and several journalistic investigations. 

The people behind the Vitals-Steward deal are now facing serious criminal charges, while the promised benefits of the PPP never materialised. 

Indeed, not only did government fork out €400 million to the private companies over a 10-year span with nothing to show for it, but it also lost the opportunity of carrying out its own investment in critical health infrastructure. 

Now, the country’s health system is buckling as a result of this lack of investment and the ones to pay the price are patients and medical professionals who must work under significant pressure over long periods. 

Waiting times at the Emergency Department have shot up with patients reporting stays of 12 hours or more. The situation is only made worse when the country experiences spikes of influenza and COVID, as is the current situation. 

Lengthy waiting times are also being experienced at health centres, which for many people are the first point of contact when a medical emergency crops up. 

But waiting times are not confined to emergency situations. Appointments for MRIs and surgical interventions are more often than not made for months down the line, indirectly forcing people to seek medical treatment in private facilities – that is if they can afford it. 

Temporary treatment areas at Mater Dei Hospital, which were supposedly reserved for major incidents have become permanent, leaving patients in undignified environments. And the staff canteen and library have had to be turned into makeshift wards. 

Unfortunately, during the years of plenty the government was more interested in defending and enabling the survival of a corrupt deal than putting into action a feasible plan to build new healthcare facilities and expand existing ones to keep up with the pace of a booming population. 

Now, in a more austere environment the government is evidently struggling to find the necessary funds. 

Health Minister Jo Etienne Abela has announced his plans, to expand the number of cubicles at the Emergency Department by building a new extension and the removal of administrative offices from Mater Dei to make space for more beds. He has also unveiled plans for outpatient and day care services to be offered from St Luke’s Hospital and Karin Grech thus freeing up more space. 

In Gozo, he unveiled plans for a new hospital with mock-up visuals of how this facility will look. No planning applications have been filed yet. 

Abela may have all the good intentions of this world but like the rest of the population we have grown cynical of plans, visuals, ideas, intentions and promises. We will believe him when the works on each of these projects start and conclude.