On a recent rainy September morning, dozens of patients including Catholic nuns are sitting in the waiting room of a clinic in Mandalay while a nurse tests someone's blood pressure. In a small room on the second floor, Father Dominic Thiha, the dentist in charge of the Mandalay
Archdiocese-run St. Francis Xavier Clinic in Myanmar's second-largest city, is busy treating the molars of a Buddhist monk. The priest welcomes people of all religions and ethnic groups and only charges a nominal fee, dispensing care "on the principle of love and kindness," he said. The aim of the clinic is to plug some of the gaps in Myanmar's public health care system
, which has all but collapsed due to mismanagement by the military over the last six decades, critics say. Nearly a third of the national budget has been allocated for the military, while just one percent goes to health care.
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The situation has improved since Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi
was appointed the first-ever State Counselor in April 2016, in a power-sharing agreement with the military. Heath-care spending made up 5.23 percent of the national budget for fiscal 2017 but this stands as a paltry sum by global and even regional standards. Father Thiha said he sees about 180 patients a month at the clinic including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, but most are Catholics. Despite being a dentist by trade, his clinic also treats people suffering from high blood pressure, or with lung or liver problems, as well as those with symptoms like fever or diarrhea. More serious cases get referred to a government-run hospital nearby. "We charge a basic consultation fee of 1,000 Kyats [US$0.64], or 2,000 Kyats to see a specialist, but we waive all fees for those who lack the means to pay, including medicine," Father Thiha told ucanews.com.
A nurse tests a patient's blood-pressure at the clinic. Fees are waived for those who cannot afford to pay. (Photo by ucanews.com)
Catholic volunteers help to staff the facility, which is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It now has nine doctors, five dentists, dozen of nurses and some pharmacists. The fees cover the doctors' traveling costs. The three-story building sits in the compound of St. Francis Xavier Church, just two blocks away from the general hospital which is notoriously overcrowded with waiting times often running into several hours. "What we offer here is quick and easy access for patients, except for emergency cases or surgery," he said. Sister Emilie Cing, the treasurer, said the clinic relies on donations from a handful of local benefactors and well-to-do Catholic families in the city to cover the salaries of non-volunteers and buy medicine. Mandalay Archdiocese has also given 1 million Kyats to assist with the running costs, but the staff say it isn't enough to make ends meet. The nun, from the congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius, said the main challenge is a lack of funding and equipment. She hopes to expand the scope of the clinic so it can perform more basic operations. The clinic was launched in 2003 by two Catholic doctors and reopened at the end of 2016 after a fire gutted the building in January 2014. Pharmaceutical firm Denk Pharma helped to pay for the renovation work due in part to the efforts of a German Catholic who serves as its head of operations, and who lives in Myanmar. He also collected donations from his friends and network in Europe. Since 2015, Father Thiha and a team from the health-care commission of Mandalay Archdiocese have been taking a "mobile clinic" to predominantly Catholic villages once a month to help people who are physically or otherwise unable to make their own way to the fixed clinic downtown. He said the next step is to try and secure funding to set up a small operating theater and train young Catholic women in the skills needed to serve as nurses, in order to make the facility more sustainable. To this end, Father Thiha is reaching out to all parishes in the region and inviting Catholics to undertake three months of training followed by a three-month "internship" at the clinic. "We do our best to care for our patients despite all our limitations," he said. Similar church-run clinics operate in Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio, Loikaw and Myitkyina dioceses, he added.