Punjab’s Aam Aadmi Clinics threaten rural health services

Amid a staff crunch, doctors working at village dispensaries have been deputed to run the new clinics, affecting emergency services in the rural and semi-urban areas; villagers and doctors say rural healthcare system is on the verge of collapse

February 18, 2023 09:58 am | Updated February 21, 2023 06:51 pm IST - Rupalheri/Malewal/Mohali

A group of villagers gathered inside the building compound housing a Subsidiary Health Centre at Rupalheri village in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district.

A group of villagers gathered inside the building compound housing a Subsidiary Health Centre at Rupalheri village in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district. | Photo Credit: Vikas Vasudeva

Anxiety is writ large on the faces of people at the Subsidiary Health Centre (SHC), the first point of contact for patients in rural areas that caters to 7,000 to 10,000 people, at Rupalheri village in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district.

The residents of Rupalheri and half a dozen neighbouring villages are aggrieved over the sole doctor at the dispensary being deputed to work about six km away at an Aam Aadmi Clinic (AAC), a flagship health initiative of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.

According to villagers and doctors in the State, the rural healthcare system is on the verge of collapse after AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann opened 400 AACs on January 27. With the clinics offering around 100 lab tests and medicines free of cost, the AAP leaders had termed it the fulfillment of the party’s election promise to provide top-notch healthcare facilities to the common man. Last year, in the first phase of the project, the government opened 100 AACs at Seva Kendra buildings.

 The civil dispensary in Phase 9, Mohali of Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar district, which now houses an Aam Aadmi Clinic.

 The civil dispensary in Phase 9, Mohali of Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar district, which now houses an Aam Aadmi Clinic. | Photo Credit: Vikas Vasudeva

However, with the new AACs functioning from buildings housing Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and doctors being roped in from SHCs and the Punjab Civil Medical Services (PCMS), emergency services in rural and semi-urban areas have been severely hit.

Voters betrayed’

The AAP government is hell-bent on dismantling the rural healthcare system, says Karamjeet Singh, a 67-year-old retired government employee in the village. He says their local dispensary has been catering to six-seven villages since the 1970s. Now, the doctor has been deputed to work at the AAC in Nandpur village, over five km away.

“I am not against these clinics, but shifting doctors is unacceptable. If the staff from existing dispensaries are going to be shifted, then what’s the point of opening new clinics? It’s a betrayal of the trust of those who voted for AAP. In fact, the facilities provided at AACs should be provided at village dispensaries itself,” Mr. Karamjeet says.

“The government is playing with the health of villagers,” says Mahender Singh, a farmer at Rupalheri village.

Medicine shortage

“We are facing a shortage of medicines, but have to repeatedly remind authorities about it. If free medicines are being given at ACCs, then what stops the government from extending the same facilities here?” says Rajesh Sharma, a doctor at the SHC in Patiala district’s Malewal village.

The residents of Phase 9 (Mohali) in Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar district are happy with the new facilities at the AAC that have been set up in the building that houses the civil dispensary, but question the motive behind the move. “If the government’s intentions were clean, it could have improved the facilities at the dispensary without changing its name to Aam Aadmi Clinic,” says Navjot Singh, who runs an electrical shop in the area.

SHCs are being indirectly closed down by handing over rural health services to nurses and Ayurveda doctors, says Dr. Aslam Parvez, president of the Punjab Rural Medical Services Association. “We demand that all rural dispensaries and hospitals be handed over to the Rural Development and Panchayats Department under the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution,” he says.

Also Read | Kejriwal promises to revamp health infra in Punjab

‘Vacant posts’

The expansion of public health services is welcome, but the staff crunch it is causing is worrisome, says Dr. Akhil Sarin, president of the Punjab Civil Medical Services Association. “With doctors at PHCs posted at AACs, emergency services at the block and rural levels have been hit. Out of the 4,000 sanctioned posts of PCMS doctors in Punjab, around 1,000 are lying vacant,” he says.

Amid the rising concerns, Punjab Health and Family Welfare Director Dr. Ranjit Singh says existing services at PHCs will not be stopped. He admits that AACs have been opened at PHCs, but says that the new clinics have been given separate work areas and staff. All employees such as multipurpose health workers, supervisors, community health officers and dental officials will continue to work at PHCs, he says.

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