The Ministry of Health has called for sober debate on whether trade unions for health workers are doing more harm than good to medical care by the frequent strikes they call to demand better pay for members.
Though the unions provide a platform for concerned individuals to exert pressure on authorities in pursuit of their demands, the industrial unrests have led to pain, loss of lives and compromised quality of healthcare, says the ministry.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union and the Kenya National Union of Nurses have in recent times mobilised their members to down their tools as they demand better working conditions, salaries, and promotions.
This has seen services in hospitals and health centres across the country paralysed and patients and their families in deep agony as they seek services in national referral hospitals and private facilities.
But in an interview with the Nation on Thursday, Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu said while it was not the ministry’s intention to take away employees’ right to be unionisable, their actions to picket must ensure basic services are provided.
“We have to rethink as a country. We must ask ourselves, is it appropriate for health workers to go on strike?
“You just can’t close a hospital or a health centre and let Kenyans die to put a point across. We need to discuss with all stakeholders how to take care of the health worker ... without taking away anybody’s right,” he said at his Afya House office in Nairobi.
His sentiments come nearly a week after doctors in Nakuru went on strike, paralysing services in 145 public hospitals. Last month, nearly 480 doctors in Nairobi, Migori, and Nakuru counties went on strike, with the same devastating consequences.
Dr Mailu said industrial unrests have been experienced – with adverse effects – since the onset of devolution, as certain structures are not in place to address workers’ concerns such as promotions, remitting of statutory deductions and salaries.
He attributed this to how the health sector was devolved in December 2013.
“The set process was that devolution in the health sector would take three years but as we are also aware, it was devolved fairly quickly and everything was sent down to the counties without proper structures,” he said.
He added: “This became a weakness in the devolution as structures were not available to absorb these decisions including how to take care of the human resource in healthcare, hence the unrests.”
Absence of prior experience also compounded the situation, Dr Mailu said, adding that it was paramount that Kenyans know the responsibilities of the national government and those of the counties.
For instance, when drugs run out in a health facility, it is the county government’s responsibility to restock and prevent such exhaustion of the supplies, he explained. He said the national government was responsible for equipping 98 health centres – two in each county and the four referral hospitals – through the Sh38 billion Managed Equipment Services project.
“The project will be completed on December 20, 2016, which will ensure we have quality services in these institutions.
Some regions will have new services that did not exist before such as dialysis now available in 47 hospitals across the country, intensive care services in 11 hospitals and diagnostics tests,” said Dr Mailu.