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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mercurial hospital chief hangs expense to heal sick

Mercurial hospital chief hangs expense to heal sick

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090115_07_2.jpg

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PETER OLSZEWSKI

Dr Beat Richner (left) and hospital director Professor Yay Chantana check a patient’s progress.

THE controversial, much-loved, yet much-maligned, cello-playing hospital boss, Dr Beat Richner - Swiss Man of the Year in 2002 - slides his glasses down his nose so he can get a better look at the figures on the piece of paper he's unfolding, the paper that gives him the final tally of the tab he's run up in 2008 to operate the Jayavarman VII Hospital for children in Siem Reap.

He mutters something about US$35.4 million but then, holding the sheet at arms-length, he mumbles: "We are not too expensive to run, but we are expensive. We spent in 2008, including the cost of the new wing we just opened, we spent, ah, yes, $35.5 million."

He quickly adds: "But the cost in relation to the healing rate is still the best because there are so many children. Our treatment figures keep increasing, and in November 2008, we had 25 percent more patients than we did in November 2007."

Richner's sidekick, Dr Denis Laurent, biologist and deputy director of the hospital, rattled off more figures about daily activities at the hospital:  1,000-1,500 outpatients treated daily; 800-1,000 vaccinations daily; 50 babies delivered on average daily, with 400 women presenting for maternity checks.

Dr Richner adds: "We have worldwide the lowest dilation cost-healing rate in pediatric institutions evaluated in 44 countries, twice, but international health experts still say we are too expensive."

For years, Richner has been at odds with a bewildering variety of UN groups, government authorities and NGOs, including Britain's Princess Anne, whom he savaged over her comments that perhaps he spends too much.

He's continually accused of providing "Rolls-Royce medicine" in a Toyota Camry country, and a common complaint is that he soaks up money and staff that could be better used elsewhere in Cambodia's medical system.

This is water off the doc's back because he claims his hospital has saved thousands of lives, and who is to put a price on that?

Plus, most of the money he spends is money he raises.

"It's a daily fight for every dollar. We get $2 million from the Cambodian government, $3 million from the Swiss government, and all the other monies are private donations. My concerts bring about $7 million a year. Finance is my nightmare and has been for the last 17 years."

On the day he spoke to the Post, he was also starting to shift the first of about 140 women and children from overcrowded wards where they had to sit on mats into the hospital's new wing, which was opened on December 30.

King Norordom Sihamoni  and Minister of Health Mam Bunheng presided at the inauguration of this wing,  which cost a cool $12 million for land and building, and increases the hospital's floor space by about a third.

It comprises 200 beds, a new imaging department, a laboratory and large pharmacy, and houses Richner's new pride and joy, a $3 million MRI scanner that he acquired in October.

Richner said that once again he is being criticised for installing such hi-tech equipment, just as he was hectored in 1996 when he installed Cambodia's first CT scanner.

The Post was given a demonstration of the radiation-free MRI - a boy's brain was scanned and the monitor showed an abscess lurking in the depths of his brain. The abscess was scanned and a graph showed it was tubercular.

Richter explained that the MRI doubles as a diagnostic tool and a research boon, and is worth every cent it costs.

But talking about costs brings Richner back to his recurring nightmare - getting the bucks. He said he has now moved a new potential donor to the top of his list - US President-elect Barack Obama.

"What I can't understand is why the governments who brought the war here and the governments that sustained the civil war, do not give us comfortable funding money?

"What I want from Barack Obama is to come to Cambodia so that I can show him this hospital and for him to understand why more and more people are saying this hospital is now a model worldwide."

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