Madam, you can give me 30k [Ugs30,000) and I take you straight to the lab.

That was the slap of bribery I received early Wednesday morning when I visited Uganda’s National Referral Hospital – Mulago – for medical attention.

The offer came without the usual winking, creepy smiles or nervousness that some security guards or police officers show when they want a bribe from a motorist caught on the wrong side of the law.

I opened and closed my mouth more than twice, but could not find the right words for a response. Probably sensing my discomfort, he said: “You can sit there and wait to be served after all these people have been attended to, or give me the money and I take you to the lab.”

“Is that a problem with you?” he asked, as I looked at the more than 50 pale-looking patients waiting to be served at the Cancer Institute section of the hospital.

That encounter tore into shreds the glowing impression I had gathered since I arrived at the hospital.

Earlier at the Private Wing, the staff left a colourful imprint on my mind. The nurses and doctors smile and listen to patients and inquirers. They communicate and don’t act like they are doing you a favor.

The askari at the entrance was my first contact when I arrived at 9am. “I’d like to see a doctor,” I told him after exchanging the hellos. “Why don’t you go to the general area at the Assessment Center first?” he asked.

I had neither the time nor the energy to spend time in the sickening queue at the General Wing. So I said ‘no’.

“Ok, this is the Private Wing, you will get the services but at a fee,” he explained before ushering me to a desk for more assistance.

The lady there asked what the problem was before directing me to the cashier to pay the consultation fee. It was Ugs10,000. Some private clinics I’m told, charge Ugs80,000 for just consultation [i.e telling the doctor what the problem is]. But that’s medicine, so I won’t complain aloud.

I had in less than 30 minutes seen a doctor – a jolly female medic who made me relax a little even with the pricking pain in my tummy. When she referred me to the lab for a test, I was unaware of what awaited me. The lab technician at the Private Wing for an unexplained reason referred me to Block 1C which happened to be the Cancer Institute.

That’s how I ended up meeting Mr Briber. I actually told him it was ok, he could take me straight to the lab. At the lab, the ladies ushered me to a seat but both were somehow uncomfortable in my presence. They tried to remain guiltless as possible. One of them then asked for my medical form.

Mr Briber, who was in the lab [to oversee the test?], was quick to say: “It’s the one I brought.”

One of the ladies took my blood sample and said I would get them after ‘talking’ to the askari. After about 30 minutes of waiting—my results were out.

Ideally, a nurse is supposed to call out names of patients whose results are ready. In my case, it was Mr Briber who called me with a nod and up I went. He needed the money, but he gave me the results first.

Somehow, I found myself turning and walking to the cashier’s window. I placed Ugs30,000 on his desk and said, “I just did a blood test.”

Mr Briber, unable to stop me, paced up and down the corridor. He looked at me from head to toe and back, quickly went into the lab to probably inform the two laboratory technicians that the “deal had gone bad”.

The national referral and all health units across the country remain sickly due to the numerous challenges they face –limited funding, persistent inconsistent supply of drugs, few medical personnel and poorly-paid staff. These are the issues pro-health budget activists have been seeking redress for.

The Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka, will June 13th 2013 read the budget. Many health advocates have been advocating for an increment to the health sector. But as we wait and hope that government ups budget support to the health sector, how much of the available funds are actually being put to good use?

How many security guards connive with laboratory technicians to deprive the hospital of money through unreceipted services? The little pay for medical personnel is not justification for this practice.

My visit to Mulago and other health units in the country reveal scores of hurdles. And as the process of diagnosing and treating ailment in the health sector goes on, it is evident that administrative tailbacks and fraud continue to stain sheets of strides made.

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