The new Health Minister comes into office facing more serious, even colossal challenges than any of his predecessors.
Not even Dr. Joseph N. Togba, who first took over this awesome portfolio right out of medical school in 1945, faced so stupendous a set of challenges as today’s incoming Health Minister, whoever that may be.
True, when Dr. Togba returned home he faced all the childhood and other diseases. Among these were chickenpox, diarrhea, whooping cough, measles, mumps, sleeping sickness, smallpox, tuberculosis, worms, yaws and yellow fever.
Yet every one of those diseases was unlike the deadly Ebola virus. None of them had people dying in the thousands. None of them was so vicious as to shatter our lives, our way of life, our economy, our cultural and social traditions and our good neighborliness.
Ebola has separated us from our next door neighbors of Guinea, Sierra Leone and La Cote d’Ivoire, to the extent that we can no longer trade with one another. When the Ivorians had their political crisis a few years ago, they streamed across the border into Liberia in the hundreds of thousands and were wholeheartedly welcomed by their Liberian brothers and sisters. For after all, the same languages, Gio, Mano, Grebo and Krahn are spoken across the borders. There are relatives on both sides of the border, divided by France when it seized huge portions of Liberian territory that became parts of Guinea and La Cote d’Ivoire.
Yet in this Ebola season, the Ivorians effectively closed their air, land and sea borders with Liberia and the two other grievously affected countries, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
But the Ebola virus went further to devastate our international relations. So many other countries stigmatized our three countries, causing our citizens great embarrassment and humiliation.
No, even though Dr. Togba faced the task of building from scratch the National Public Health Service (NPHS) that later became the MOH, it was far from what the incoming Minister of Health faces today.
For starts, even though we face an awesome health and medical crisis, our Minister-designate, Mr. George T. Werner, has spent not a day in medical school. But that need not be to his disadvantage. Several others served though they were not doctors. The first was Madam Mai Padmore, for many years President Tubman’s Special Assistant, whom President W.R. Tolbert appointed his first Health Minister. She was succeeded by Counselor Oliver Bright, and after him another lawyer, Cllr. Estrada Bernard. Then came Dr. Abeodu Jones, a historian, and after her Dr. Kate Bryant, MD, a pediatrician.
Given this historical background, the Senate should not be too quick to reject Mr. Warner as the new Health Minister. What he will need is all the help he can get from those who know about the business—medical practitioners and related persons who can help him put together a program to finish the fight against the Ebola virus.
This hopefully last stage in the anti-Ebola crusade is critical; for the new Minister will have to work closely with the Chief Medical Officer the Incident Management System that handles the Ebola crisis, the World Health Organization and all the partners, including the Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Africans, Asians, etc. He will need all the help he can get in taking the fight to the finish, which he does not have much time to achieve, since President Sirleaf and the Liberian people are hoping that Liberia can be Ebola free before Christmas.
The new Minister’s next challenge is to develop a Master Plan for the rebuilding of Liberia’s entire Healthcare Delivery System. This must ensure that modern hospitals are built in places where they do not yet exist, including Grand Gedeh, River Gee, Grand Kru, River Cess and Sinoe Counties. And where they do exist, the hospitals must be seriously revamped and modern equipment installed, including specialized equipment for radiology, dialyses, heart, dental surgery and ophthalmology procedures, to list a few.
The Master Plan should also include healthcare centers throughout the country, especially in remote villages, making lack of access to healthcare a thing of the past.
The new Minister will have to work closely with the Dean and Faculty of the A.M. Dioglotti College of Medicine, the West African Post Graduate College of Physicians and Surgeons and all the other partners to develop a comprehensive plan to train medical doctors, nurses and paramedics to man the new health system.
Well-conceived and sustainable terms of service and remuneration structures are necessary components of medical personnel development planning so that the focus will remain where it is critically needed – on saving and enhancing lives, instead of constant fights over pay, benefits and the horrendous conditions in most medical facilities around the country.
Not to be ignored is the need for a healthcare delivery system to be trusted and embraced by the people. That trust must be earned by good customer service delivered by doctors, nurses and other medical staff from janitors to CMO who are inculcated (instilled) with the culture of empathy and unconditional, non-judgmental acceptance of those needing and seeking their care. There is rampant egregious (extremely bad) treatment of patients by many hospital staff and this must be thoroughly and uncompromisingly reversed.
Furthermore, the people’s trust must be earned by a healthcare delivery system that makes informed decisions and acts expeditiously in the people’s interest. That kind of system ensures that those hired are indeed qualified to serve in their posts, that medications on the local market are rigorously inspected for safety and authenticity.
That kind of system is also seen to be enforcing without prejudice all the rules, laws and regulations to prevent medical crises and move quickly to control crises as it is now doing to prevent further spread of the Ebola virus.
To win the people’s confidence and trust, the well-conceived healthcare delivery system will allocate funding to teach, monitor and engage the communities it serves across the country. Messages targeting prevention such as pre and post natal care, good hygiene, healthy eating, fitness, vaccination, environmental cleanliness must be seriously and relentlessly promoted by every effective means possible until disease and death rates in the country are far lower than they are today.
It is a tall order and we wish the new Minister well.