Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kantha Bopha II... and the Beat goes on

Kantha Bopha II... and the Beat goes on

Kantha Bopha II... and the Beat goes on


MID the fanfare of the opening of the Kantha Bopha II hospital, it was no surprise

that founder Beat Richner had a few words to say about people who advocate "poor

medicine for the poor people in poor countries."

"It is a false and hypocritical idea to want to adapt medicine to the conditions

of poor countries," he said in his opening speech before King Norodom Sihanouk,

Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz and assembled dignitaries Oct 12.

It was a familiar line from the Swiss pediatrician who is as famous for his attacks

on international health organizations as for his vision of providing the highest-quality

medical care to Cambodia's poorest children. Or, given that, as famous as he is a

world-class cellist.

For a man who has publicly accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of effectively

sanctioning murder in its policies, Richner is not a man to mince words or shy away

from controversy.

As he opened his second hospital - upon land personally donated by the King - there

were likely more than a few other health professionals in Phnom Penh cringing at

the limelight granted him.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Richner is a debate over the philosophies

of health care for poor countries, and of sustainable development.

No-one doubts Richner's commitment to offering high-quality medical care to Cambodians

and of his seemingly inexhaustible ability to raise money for it.

But in his attempt to provide "Rolls-Royce" care, as a WHO official once

said in response to Richner, he is criticized for creating an oasis of high-quality

medicine outside the national health policy.

To Richner, his theory is simple - providing good medical care free of charge to

as many people as possible. Money, he believes, should be no barrier; there is no

excuse why Cambodians should have to accept anything less than what is provided in

the West.

Richner's odyssey in Cambodia started in 1974 when he came to work in the Kantha

Bopha pediatric hospital built by the King and named after his daughter who died

from leukemia. The Khmer Rouge forced both his departure in 1975 and the closure

of the hospital. The regime's collapse in 1979 saw it reopened as part of Phnom Penh's

military hospital.

Richner, running a pediatric practice in Switzerland, returned to Cambodia for a

visit in late 1991 and was asked by the government to oversee the revival of the

former pediatric hospital.

"I thought this would be the task of the Swiss government. As the government

did not agree to fund the project, I decided to."

Richner turned to one of his great loves - the cello - to help him raise funds. Well-known

back home under his stage name Beatocello, he was able to put his fame to good use.

Within a year, Kantha Bopha I was open for the first time in 17 years. Equipped with

modern laboratories and surgical wards, its reputation soon spread. Today, people

come from all around Cambodia to take their sick children to the hospital.

Each morning, they queue at the entrance up to two hours before the gates are open.

Guards give each family a ticket and they await the calling of their number for a


The patient numbers are astounding - 1,000 to 1,200 children a day is common, and

even as many as 1,800.

"Twice we have reached 1,800 patients," says Dr Peter Studer, vice-president

of Richner's foundation which supports the hospital. "At this point, we cannot

accept any more."

Everything is free: consultations, medicine and, if needed, hospitalization.

Kantha Bopha I has 210 beds, and at times as many as 300 children require them. Beds

are set up in the corridors to cope when necessary.

When demand for consultations or beds is too high, families spill over to the National

Pediatric Hospital, which is supported by the NGO World Vision and is separate from

Kantha Bopha.

Kantha Bopha II, due to open Nov 4, will add up to 200 more beds. It will be for

hospitalization only; all initial consultations and surgery will be made at the first


Richner secured a single private donation to build Kantha Bopha II, and the gift

of land next to the Royal Palace from the King. He aims to match the same high standards

- the hospital will boast the first neurological scanner in Cambodia.

In the future, Richner hopes to expand into the provinces, at first working with

the provincial hospital of Kompong Cham and ultimately building more Kantha Bophas.

"With five centers like Kantha Bopha we could solve the problem of children's

health in Cambodia," he declares.

"Not true," replies a foreign doctor who has worked with an NGO for five

years. "What Dr Richner is doing is very good, but we need to develop something

that is complementary."

Critics advocate a better primary health care system, with a referral system to hospitals

when necessary.

They also suggest that the quality of diagnosis is inevitably jeopardized by a workload

as high as that of Kantha Bopha I.

"A Kantha Bopha cut off from the world causes a saturation of the hospital...

the doctors do not have enough time to spend with each patient and to develop contact

with families," says the NGO doctor, who does not want to be named.

The Post was told of three cases of misdiagnosis or inadequate treatment, including

a child who, suffering a broken collar bone, had his lower arm plastered.

"Mistakes can happen," says Richner, though other health professionals

acknowledge that Kantha Bopha's quality is undoubtedly higher than most other hospitals.

But, says UNICEF officer-in-charge Andrew Morris, "the problem is more complex

than just building five hospitals.

"People do not have [medical] knowledge, they have no money for transport to

the hospital."

Parents, he says, don't have enough information to know when their sick children

could be looked after at home, when it is necessary to take them to a nurse, and

when hospitalization is required.

"It is OK to build hospitals but it is not enough," agrees Dr Georg Petersen

of WHO. "What we need is primary health centers. We need to put the health care

where the people live.

"In Cambodia there are only 13,000 doctors for 10 million people. Most people

go and see a nurse rather than going to a doctor. We have to train the nurses and

make them understand when to send a patient to hospital."

Petersen compares it to the practice in western countries where people go to a general

practitioner before, if needed, being referred to a specialist.

"Most common diseases contributing to children's deaths can be prevented or

treated at an early stage without sophisticated medical supplies or experts,"

says Jaisankar Sarma, country director of World Vision.

"For example, diarrhea can easily be treated with oral rehydration solution

to prevent death from dehydration. Parents can be taught to recognize danger signs

of dengue haemorrhagic fever so that they can come for early treatment..."

NGOs advocate working with the government to produce a national health policy of

several layers of health care. They urge medical centers in communes and districts,

with a referral system to a provincial hospital, and greater education of parents,

nurses and doctors.

Petersen says Kantha Bopha, which he agrees is "of the best standard",

could fit into the top rung of such a national policy. "My wish would be that

Kantha Bopha be integrated in the national structure as a specialized hospital. In

all countries there is a university pediatric hospital."

Adds an NGO doctor: "If Kantha Bopha stays as a bubble in the air, it is just

a drop of water. It is a good opportunity for young doctors to work in normal conditions.

It should be integrated in the system to upgrade all of the system."

Richner says that Kantha Bopha already has 60 young doctors, and some anesthetists,

in training.

As for a focus on primary health care, Kantha Bopha runs a preventative education

center and an outpatient service.

But, Richner warns, "nothing is simple in terms of child health." For instance,

"diarrhea is not simple and needs to be properly diagnostic through a test with

Ionogramme, which we are the only one to use."

He says primary health care centers must offer the same quality as a proper hospital;

for instance anywhere minor surgery is performed must be 100 percent sterile, and

all blood products properly screened.

Richner says that working within the government system comes with its own problems

such as corruption.

"With corruption nothing can work properly. Everything is going to be lost."

Underpaid doctors, he says, are tempted to sell medical equipment or drugs or charge

for services, which can deter patients from seeking treatment. To maintain high standards,

Kantha Bopha I doctors are paid $500 a month - compared to about $20 in the public


"We are jealous of his success. He is good because he has the capacity to raise

money," admits a doctor from an international organization. "But what will

happen after him? He has to foresee what will happen when the money is not there

any more."

Putting it more bluntly, he adds: "I'm not sure that it is a good idea to give

privilege to one hospital among all the shit. Maybe it is better to upgrade all the


Dr Dy Narong Rith, Secretary of State for Health, says Kantha Bopha - whose yearly

budget equals about a fifth of the national health budget - is like a pilot hospital.

It is high-quality and a good example of what could be done if the ministry could

afford similar hospitals in the future, he says.

"We have to enjoy the experience as long as the funding is there. Afterward,

the equipment will remain and we will have to prevent all of it returning to ruins."

Richner acknowledges that it is becoming more difficult to raise money, but remains

confident that he can keep doing so.

Kantha Bopha I has a yearly budget of $4 million. More than $3 million of that goes

to operating costs including equipment, medicine and salaries of Khmer staff. Another

$800,000 is spent on the hospital's 12 expatriate staff.

Small donations flood in to Richner's foundations in Switzerland, says Studer. "We

are receiving about 200 donations every day. It is between $3 and $4 million a year."

Richner remains optimistic. "I hope the Swiss government will increase its participation

in the funding. They are already giving $1 million a year. I hope they will increase

their participation to $2 million in the next year."

And the long term future? "During the next ten years the funding will have to

come from outside. But little by little as the middle class gets better, we could

ask some patients to pay and the government would have to tax the richest."

In the meantime, "I am going in Switzerland three times a year and raising the

money by playing cello."

Will he ever tire of relying on his music abilities to raise funds? Richner replies:

"Did you see the cello on the gates of Kantha Bopha II? It means Beatocello

does not want to die."


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