On a Sunday noon Sajjadur Rahman took his aging father Rahmat Ullah to Lalmonirhat Sadar Hospital's emergency for treatment. But he brought him back home, at Harati village of Lalmonirhat Sadar upazila, after finding no doctor at the hospital.
Sajjadur decided not to have his father treated that day at the hospital after seeing that instead of a full medical officer, a medical assistant -- known officially as sub-assistant community medical officers (SacMO) -- was prescribing medicines to patients.
“It's regretful that even the emergency department of the hospital is also being run by a SacMO,” he said.
Patient suffering at the hospital reached large proportions lately as only four medical officers are employed against 19 allocated posts there.
Moreover, eight out of 18 consultant posts also remain vacant at the 100-bed hospital in the district with a population of over 12 lakh inhabitants.
The situation turned for the worse after one of the four medical officers went on leave.
On an average day, Lalmonirhat Sadar Hospital sees around 450 patients at its outpatient section, while around 120 patients remain admitted at the hospital section.
With a small number of doctors and under pressure of serving an ever-increasing number of patients, who cannot afford treatment at private hospitals for higher fees, the hospital authorities are now allowing medical assistants to issue prescriptions.
Delwar Hossain, an elderly man from Rajpur in Sadar upazila, said even though the hospital lacks adequate doctors, many like him wait in long queues there because treatment at private hospitals are too expensive.
“Treatment here may not quite come up to expectations, but at least medicines can be expected here,” he said standing in a long line of patients.
Fifty-six-year-old Saleha Bewa, from Kulaghat village of the same upazila, was going home disappointed. She said there was no scope for a patient to speak privately with the doctor as it was chaotic and overcrowded inside the hospital. Besides, she was given a prescription without a thorough examination.
One of the medical assistants, SacMO Abir Been Akhter, said due to the shortage of medical officers, patients at outpatient and emergency sections of the hospital are being treated by SacMOs.
In order to serve a large number of patients, the handful of SacMOs “prescribe medicines to the patients only after hearing their problems as there's not enough time to thoroughly examine so many of them,” he also said.
Agreeing with Abir's comments, his colleague Jasim Uddin, also a SacMO, said, “We try the best that we can, but a huge number of patients don't allow us to provide the atmosphere that we would like to provide to our patients.”
Dr Sankar Kumar Saha, senior cardiology consultant at the hospital, told the Daily Star that the acute shortage of medical officers is pushing all physicians including himself to the limit. Aside from treating inpatients, he also had been treating outpatients every day.
Lalmonirhat Sadar Hospital's Superintendent Dr Golam Mohammad admitted the crisis, saying that three SacMOs, who are on deputation, had to be engaged at the hospital to address the situation.
A good number of patients from five upazilas of Lalmonirhat as well as neighbouring Kurigram's three upazilas -- Phulbari, Nageshwari and Bhurungamari -- rely on the hospital for affordable medical services, but it is quite difficult to serve them when “the hospital has only four medical officers, with one of them on leave at the moment,” he said.
The superintendent also said, “Every month, we've been sending demand letters to health ministry, requesting medical officers [for the hospital], but no response [from the ministry] yet.”