Faced with crippling shortages of fuel, medicine and supplies, and an exodus of doctors, Lebanon’s university medical centers have stopped performing some advanced medical procedures, and one prominent medical institution warned over the weekend that it was on the brink of being forced to shut down.
The problems at the university hospitals are exacerbated by the country’s severe economic crisis, which has affected all levels of society and hastened the departure of large numbers of specialized academic doctors abroad. Doctors have seen an 80-percent drop in their wages after the collapse of the value of the Lebanese pound and are further discouraged by the deterioration of medical services and quality. (See a related article, “For Many Universities in Lebanon, Survival May Be at Stake.”)
Fuel shortages are particularly dangerous for hospitals. The increasingly long hours of power cuts from the state’s failing electric grid force institutions to rely on diesel-fueled generators to keep equipment running, and lives are at stake when the power goes out.
Lebanon has five university hospitals with a maximum capacity of about 1,300 beds, in addition to teaching hospitals under the supervision of university professors that also train new doctors, according to Sleiman Haroun, president of the Private Hospitals Syndicate in Lebanon.
“All five hospitals closed a number of their important departments and stopped performing microsurgeries after senior specialized professors left the country,” Haroun said in a phone call. Because many departments have already closed, fewer sick people come and beds go unused, he said. Given these conditions, hospitals figure it’s better to narrow down services.
“All five hospitals closed a number of their important departments and stopped performing microsurgeries after senior specialized professors left the country.“Sleiman Haroun
President of the Private Hospitals Syndicate in Lebanon
Haroun stressed that more than one hospital has stopped treating cancer patients with chemotherapy because of an acute shortage of medications.
‘Facing Imminent Disaster’
One of the starkest distress calls came from the American University of Beirut Medical Center, which warned in a statement issued on August 14 that it was “facing imminent disaster due to the threat of forced shutdown, starting the morning of this Monday, August 16, as a result of fuel shortages. This means that ventilators and other life-saving medical devices will cease to operate. Forty adult patients and 15 children living on respirators will die immediately.”
A day later, the medical center reported that government agencies and international organizations had managed to supply it with enough diesel fuel to run the hospital for about a week. However, the center’s management demanded, in a later statement, that government agencies work on longer term plans to ensure sustainability.
In turn, Beirut Arab University decided to close its campuses, including a health care center that served the community, because of the tragic circumstances Lebanon is passing through, the mobile security incidents and out of control risks, and in the light of the inability to secure the necessary fundamental requirements.”
Saint George Hospital, a university medical center affiliated with the University of Balamand’s Faculty of Medicine, has also cut back on services because of a significant decline in its resources. Performing microsurgeries, cardiac catheterizations or organ transplants has become a “rare event,” said Sharaf Abu Sharaf, a professor at the university’s Faculty of Medicine and head of Beirut’s Order of Physicians.
“The worst aspect of deterioration is that the quality of university education and the experience in medical schools has been affected by the increasing number of qualified professors who left the country in recent months,” Abu Sharaf said in a phone call.
As the economic situation worsened, accelerated by the massive explosion at Beirut’s port one year ago, hundreds of Lebanese medical colleges’ professors in rare specialties left, seeking better living conditions abroad. (See a related article, “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital.”)
Ghassan Abu-Sittah, the former head of the plastic surgery division at the American University of Beirut Medical Center and founder of the university’s Conflict Medicine Program, is one of 160 doctors who have left the medical center in recent months. (See a related article, “Ghassan Abu-Sittah: A War-Zone Surgeon Sets Up a Curriculum for Conflict Medicine.”)
“As a physician, I lost my ability to provide medical services,” Abu-Sittah, who now works at the Centre for Blast Injury Studies at Imperial College London, said in a phone call. “I can no longer bear the hardships of living in Lebanon.”
“The current Lebanese crisis achieved what the siege of Beirut did not achieve in 1982,” he added. “Major university hospitals were forced to close rare specialized departments, and the largest leading medical center in the Middle East was threatened with an imminent collapse due to a fuel shortage.”
Abu Sharaf estimates that about 2,000 doctors have left Lebanon in recent months, most of whom are specialists and experienced. He thinks that around 25 newly graduated doctors leave for Europe or America every week for specialized training or to escape the conditions in Lebanon. It is worth noting that around 500 doctors graduate in Lebanon annually, he added. (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)
“It is our bad fate that medical colleges, health centers, and treatment of patients would be the subject of political bargaining.”Sharaf Abu Sharaf
A professor at the University of Balamand’s Faculty of Medicine and head of Beirut’s Order of Physicians.
Appeals for Support
The economic crisis also prompted a number of university hospitals, such as the Lebanese American University Medical Center–Rizk Hospital, to collect donations to support the work of these institutions. “Every donation counts, every penny makes a difference, every moment matters, and every share spreads the word further,” the medical center said in a statement. “Make a donation and together, we will heal Beirut, the capital of compassion.”
But some professors say donations won’t be enough. Greater external financial support will be needed get the medical centers operating a full capacity again and to restore the competencies in scarce specialties of professors who left Lebanon.
“Without external financial support, it will be very difficult for the health-care sector to return to its normal status,” said Haroun, of the hospitals syndicate.
In turn, Abu-Sittah called on the United Nations to intervene to secure fuel for Lebanon’s hospitals and to provide medical centers and universities with financial grants to help them overcome this crisis.
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However, Abu Sharaf, who estimated the presence of about 100 doctors in each university hospital, believes that solving the problem is primarily a political challenge, including the need for politicians to finally agree on forming a new government that will rejuvenate the country.
“It is our bad fate that medical colleges, health centers, and treatment of patients would be the subject of political bargaining,” he said.