State Of Emergency

Sickly emergency ward policy requires immediate attention from Ministry of Health

You’ve been in an accident – where do you go?  If you said the emergency department you could be wrong.

Two months ago my Sunday Times editor made this “mistake”, taking a small boy who had been in a traffic accident to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital for emergency treatment.  The boy, playing with a friend alongside of the highway, had run head-on into an oncoming SUV.  He was severely bruised, crying, and required treatment, but when they reached the hospital the staff at the registration desk turned the boy away on the basis of an archaic policy that requires a police report before care can be administered to an accident victim.

Nurses and doctors affirmed this police report policy to the boy and my editor and it was only after they drove to the police station and were escorted by an officer back to the emergency department that the boy received treatment for the traumatic experience he had endured.

Three weeks ago, that same editor witnessed a similar episode when a 16-wheeler truck struck a small car.  One passenger was killed on impact, and when the other bloodied passenger was brought to the hospital in hope of emergency treatment he was forced to wait in agonizing pain until a police report could be acquired.

When questioned on the policy, chief administrator of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital Themba Mhango said a victim of a traffic collision would “definitely” be treated right away because “it is a human rights issue.”

“Now with the multi-party system, human rights came in and people started realizing their human rights.  You can’t do that to a person now – say ‘no I won’t give you treatment,’” Mhango said.

However, a subsequent visit to the hospital’s emergency room registration desk involved no mention of human rights.

In contradiction to Mhangos’s comments, a desk attendant said that while critical injuries are treated as soon as possible, “when an accident victim arrives a police report is required.”

While “there are serious cases in which you can’t do otherwise but treat the victim,” the attendant said the majority of individuals who seek treatment following a collision have suffered “minor injuries” and therefore require a police report.

Southern Region Police Public Relations Officer Nicholas Gondwa also confirmed the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident and said the policy exists because “hospitals fear that the person may not be an accident victim but rather a criminal who got injured while committing acts of crime.”

“It cannot be known whether the person was really involved in an accident or was injured while committing acts of crime,” he said.

The point is moot.  Under Article 16 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi ratified in 1989, Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health” and, “States parties… shall take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick.”

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contain similar clauses.

Because Malawi uses a socialized system of health care, “with the goal of providing access and basic health services to all Malawians,” it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to address this archaic policy – take necessary measures to protect the health of their people.

If the mission of the Ministry of Health truly is to “raise the level of health status of all Malawians by reducing the incidence of illness and occurrence of death in the population,” the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident must be abolished.

Considering the fact that it is already difficult to get necessary health care in Malawi – transportation to clinics and health centers is problematic, and when a person is able to reach a health centre or hospital it is not uncommon to find that there is no medicine – added delays to accessing appropriate care such as this hospital procedure of requiring a police report are undue, unjust and inhumane, and completely contradict the state of emergency for which the health department in question exists.

In the meantime, Malawians should be advised to keep a first aid kit on hand as well as a police officers’ phone number on speed dial – you will need both before you can access appropriate treatment for injuries sustained in an accident at Queen’s hospital.

With files from the Sunday Times’ Ruth Mputeni


About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

2 responses to “State Of Emergency”

  1. Lori says :

    Wouldn’t it be easier and better if hospital personnel were simply required to contact Police if and when they felt that an individual’s injuries looked as though they might have been sustained through illegal activities?

    And, for me, it begs the question about what were to happen if the Police thought the injuries were related to potential criminal activity — do they refuse to transport them to the hospital and/or refuse them the right to treatment?

    Treatment first, questioning and potential investigation if necessary, later!

    • karissagall says :

      I agree 100 percent.

      My editor was told that treatment is withheld until a police report is presented as a kind of “collateral”.

      The policy is paranoid and calls the priorities of both the hospital and the police into question. Whatever happened to the hospitals mandate to provide “access and basic health services to all Malawians”? To the Malawi Police Service’s mandate for the “protection of property, life, fundamental freedoms and rights of individuals”? To the principle of presumption of innocence? And what kind of state is the country in when patients are forced to invoke that principle in an emergency room? Moreover and as you mentioned, if a patient was involved in criminal activity would they not receive the same quality of care? Even convicted criminals are entitled to health care. You wouldn’t know that if you visited Zomba Maximum Security though.

      Treatment first, questioning and potential investigation if necessary, later.

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