Despite being nowhere near achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the Healthcare sector of Pakistan has come a long way from having a negligible existence to one with an appreciable degree of success in improving and advancing public health.

Government hospitals in Pakistan are notorious for negligence and poor hygienic conditions but the fact remains that they are equipped with more advanced modern facilities and better qualified doctors than the private ones. The treatment offered is virtually free and effective, except for a few notable exceptions. There are, of course, obvious problems of catering to a growing population and of small government funding. As health insurance is not commonly availed in Pakistan, these remain the best options for most. However, some of the doctors serving in these also have private clinics due to the minimal salaries, and are therefore unable to give full time and attention to their hospital duties. Quality of the care provided also varies from hospital to hospital; primarily due to the small amount, uneven distribution and pilferage of medical resources.

There are a number of challenges faced by the healthcare sector. The focus of the government has always been on the treatment of diseases instead of preventive measures. Child mortality is high with preventable diseases like whooping cough, diarrhea and measles. Malnourishment and undernourishment have also made people more susceptible to infections. Lack of proper sanitation and consumption of unhygienic food give rise to and worsen many medical conditions. There are still efforts being made to eradicate polio. The floods of 2010 have caused many epidemics of water borne diseases. The Dengue fever made a comeback last year as well.

Due to illiteracy, traditional beliefs, poverty and a lack of facilities in rural areas, many opt for treatment by indigenous practitioners of the Vedic and Unani schools. These are an indispensible part of the Healthcare structure and are duly recognized by the state. As most of the population resides in rural areas, these are the best source of care besides and alongside the modern treatment procedures in hospitals. There are a number of problems here too. Most Hakims or traditional healers aren’t formally qualified and certified but are still frequented. Faith in quacks also continues as many have set up private practices in villages without any medical degrees. And then there are the ones claiming to be divinely guided; telling their ill devotees that they are possessed by spirits when they really have failed kidneys!

In the 70’s, as part of a government scheme to make healthcare more affordable, all medicines were made available without prescription. This had one adverse effect: many have started fancying themselves doctors, taking antibiotics at the first sign of an illness. Sometimes, people take pills for even self-limiting viral infections as they are unable to decipher the mundane symptoms. With incorrect usage and dosage of medicines, the most common of complaints are transformed into complex and expensive to treat diseases.

Another problem prevalent in the rural areas of Pakistan, linked to the above mentioned one, is that of patients going to a physician too late. What a layman mistakes for a common ailment could easily have a serious underlying cause. Still, many endure the pain using painkillers and home remedies; until it becomes unbearable. And by then the disease has advanced too much for the treatment to be quick and effective.

NGOs and the private sector step in where the Government fails. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, funded by philanthropists, has state of the art medical facilities and treats poor patients free of cost. Shifa International Hospital, initially a privately run hospital, is now a Government one. Aga Khan University Hospitals also offer high quality treatment. The Edhi Foundation, besides performing a multitude of other charitable services, also finances the medical treatment of the underprivileged.

More funds, efficient spending and a Public- Private alliance could do much to improve the current Healthcare sector scenario.