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Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

A recent rise in humidity levels in Qatar has led to a sudden increase in the number of people suffering from heat-related illnesses, according to a senior doctor at Hamad General Hospital.

In one week in mid-August, the hospital’s emergency department treated up to 280 people – many of whom were young men – for potentially serious conditions, such as heat exhaustion and heat stress.

Prof Peter Cameron

Hamad Medical Corporation

Prof Peter Cameron

This is a significant increase from the number of cases in previous months, Emergency Department Chairman Peter Cameron said.

In June, there were 118 cases, while in July, 77 people presented to the emergency department with symptoms.

The hospital has urged people – especially outdoor workers, who are particularly at risk – to watch out for the warning signs and take urgent action to prevent serious illness.

The campaign comes as the end of Qatar’s midday outdoor work ban, which expires Aug. 31, approaches.

Cameron said:

“We are asking people, especially outdoor workers, to take care at this period as we have seen a sudden surge in cases of heat exhaustion due to the sharp rise in humidity.

“It is important to ensure people who are exposed to the sun and heat take rest at regular intervals between 10 am and 3 pm, which is the hottest period of the day because that is when we see more cases.”

What is heat exhaustion?

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse as a result of the body overheating.

It is one of three heat-related syndromes, with heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the most severe, as well as possibly life-threatening.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion may develop suddenly or over time, especially with prolonged periods of working under high humidity or exercising.

Possible heat exhaustion symptoms include:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat;
  • Heavy sweating;
  • Faintness;
  • Dizziness; fatigue;
  • Weak, rapid pulse;
  • Low blood pressure upon standing;
  • Muscle cramps;
  • Nausea; and
  • Headache

What to do

Cameron urged those working outdoors during the day to be particularly careful, and to watch out for the signs of the condition in their friends and colleagues.

He advised: “Once they [have] discovered someone is in distress, they should take immediate action by giving them cold drinks [and] bringing them to a shaded and cool area.”

He said that if the affected person does not improve or shows drowsiness or confusion, colleagues should immediately call an ambulance.

Hospital treatment for heat exhaustion patients include intravenous fluids and electrolytes to quickly rehydrate them.

Cameron admitted that the new pattern had taken medics by surprise.

However, he said that overall, the figures were in line with the number of cases seen by the hospital in recent years.

During the same period in August last year, the hospital reported treating around 30 people a day in its emergency room for heat-related illnesses. Most of these were construction workers.

Working hours caution

Thousands of workers can be seen toiling outdoors throughout the searing heat of Qatar’s long summers.

Laws restrict workers’ hours during the hottest part of the day, limiting the number of hours a laborer can work outdoors during the morning.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Richard Messenger/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

However, this is only in place between June 15 until Aug. 31.

The scorching sun and high humidity often start well before then, and can continue through September and into October, leaving many men working long hours in harsh conditions.

Before the ban was implemented this year, some manual workers told Doha News that they were required to work long hours and were not permitted coffee and water breaks.

Qatar has been criticized over the dismal working and living conditions of many of its blue-collar employees.

Last July, 32 Nepalese workers died, a record number for this mostly working class segment of Qatar’s population.

Speaking to Doha News at the time, a Nepalese embassy official attributed the deaths of the laborers, most of whom were in their 20s, to harsh working conditions.

Thoughts?

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Despite huge investments in healthcare, a growing number of Qataris are seeking treatment abroad, costing the government some $329.6 million (QR1.2bn) last year – more than double what it spent two years ago, the Peninsula reports.

In 2009, some 950 citizens sought treatment abroad to the tune of $137.3 million (QR500 million). And in 2010, Supreme Council of Health figures showed a total of $214.2 million (QR780m) was spent on nearly 3,000 citizens who traveled abroad for treatment.

According to last year’s figures, which were disclosed at a meeting of the Advisory Council, about 2,000 Qatari patients are currently undergoing treatment abroad with state support.

Where the money goes

The vast majority of overseas cases involve elective surgery, rather than emergency medical care, statistics in Qatar’s National Health Strategy (NHS) show.

The NHS, quoted in Gulf News, also states that up to 70 percent of the costs for foreign treatment are for flights and accommodation, both for the patient and for their families, who often travel with them. 

A Gallup poll published in Peninsula in August this year found that 43 percent of Qataris would prefer to go abroad for treatment if they have a serious disease, despite the government’s investment in healthcare in the country. 

Qatar’s increasingly overcrowded hospitals and a lack of confidence in the quality of medical care here are two of the reasons motivating many to seek treatment abroad, reports Peninsula.

Universal health insurance plan

Qatar spent nearly $2,000 per person on healthcare in 2011 for a total of $3.2 billion, making it the region’s highest per capita spender on the sector.

It’s planning nothing short of a health revolution next year, with a plan to introduce a law requiring everyone – citizens, residents and visitors – to have health insurance. 

Under the Social Health Insurance (SHI) plan, the government will be responsible for insuring nationals while the onus of insuring expats will fall on the companies that employ them.

The Supreme Council of Health has announced that Qatari women will be the first to benefit from the insurance scheme at the beginning of next year. 

SHI will be rolled out in five stages, but will focus primarily on shoring up coverage for nationals during most of this time; expats’ healthcare will only be addressed in the final stage towards the end of 2014, the draft law states.

Doubts over timeframe

However, Industry experts told the UK’s Financial Times earlier this year that they seriously doubted SHI would be introduced in the time frame stated.

They pointed to a lack of regulation of private insurance providers in Qatar, the inconsistent quality of care, and an absence of consistency in billing practices as the main reasons for a delay.

Priority to Qatari nationals

The Peninsula reports that the Advisory Council also agreed to give priority to Qataris in all healthcare services at its meeting, although they did not make clear how this will be achieved. 

The Advisory Council has, however, recommended that expat-only hospitals and clinics should be built.

According to the Peninsula, three hospitals and five clinics exclusively catering to laborers are already being planned. 

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Badly Drawn Dad

A long-standing nursing shortage in Qatar has been exacerbated by global competition that makes it hard to recruit nurses from abroad, officials have said. The problem is expected to worsen as Qatar opens up a slew of hospitals in the coming years.

Qatar currently has 10,262 nurses, 445 of them Qatari. 

The country is facing a “severe shortage of nurses” in part because of low salaries and an inability to train enough nurses at home, the Peninsula reports.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Qatar has 74 nurses per 10,000 people. In comparison, the US has 98, and Norway, the country with the best nurse to population ratio, 319. The global average, however, is 28. 

The low ratio is already affecting patient care, with the number of complaints about long waiting times and poor treatment at public and private hospitals here on the rise.

Numbers

The University of Calgary in Qatar produces some 20 homegrown nurses a year, which is too small a figure to make a difference given the current shortage, Dr. Nabeela Al Meer, Director of the Nursing Department at Hamad Medical Corporation, said in 2010.

Consequently, Qatar has to look abroad to recruit most of the nurses it needs. 

The SCH has set a target of a 5:1 patient-nurse ratio, but hospitals are finding it extremely hard to recruit enough nurses to achieve this.

That’s in part because Western countries offer more attractive salaries for foreign nurses, said Dr. Jamal Rashid Al Khanji, director of the Quality Control Department at the Supreme Council of Health (SCH).

The average monthly salary of a nurse in Qatar ranges from QR4,000 to QR10,000, far below average nursing salaries in the US or Europe.

The Peninsula reports that most nurses applying to work in the GCC are either married to men working here or unable to get a job in the West.

Qatar’s National Development Strategy acknowledges the problem:

“The recruitment and retention of quality healthcare professionals are challenging, and the shortage of physicians, nurses and therapists impedes delivery of safe, effective and high-quality healthcare. Meeting future requirements could be difficult considering Qatar’s recruitment and retention needs and the global shortage of healthcare professionals.”

Al Meer told the Peninsula that HMC is currently working on a five-year plan to boost the number of nurses working in Qatar.

But HMC has been talking about a five-year plan since at least 2010, Gulf News reports.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by DIAC images