ISLAMABAD: Millions are at risk in Pakistan as hospitals, laboratories and clinics face an acute shortage of medical devices and diagnostic products due to unofficial import restrictions, local suppliers and health care practitioners have said, while the government says it has ordered the central bank to prioritize medical imports.
Pakistan imports over 90 percent of its medical devices and diagnostic equipment from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China to meet its domestic medical requirements. According to official statistics, the country spends about $1.1 billion annually to procure these products from abroad.
The South Asian country is struggling to quell default fears in domestic and international markets, with its forex reserves diminishing to $3.09 billion and a $1.1 billion bailout tranche from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stuck since November. Meanwhile, the government has also placed a ban on the import of goods, including industrial raw materials, to stop dollar outflows.
“We have urged the government and the central bank several times to allow the import of medical devices as it is a matter of urgent public importance, but to no avail so far,” Masood Ahmed, chairman of the Healthcare Devices Association of Pakistan, told Arab News.
The medical devices that Pakistan imports range from simple tongue depressors and bedpans to complex programmable pacemakers and closed-loop artificial pancreas systems. These devices also include in-vitro diagnostic (IVD) products, such as reagents, test kits and blood glucose meters as well as life-support equipment like ventilators, incubators and heart, lung and dialysis machines.
The government slapped the ban on imports in December last year after the nation’s foreign exchange reserves started depleting because of external debt repayments. The country’s current forex reserves are barely enough to cover only about 18 days of imports.
Islamabad is currently negotiating with the IMF for the resumption of its stalled $7 billion bailout program to avert the looming default.
Ahmed said he was not expecting the government to lift the import ban anytime soon, even if it reached an agreement with the global lender to secure the next tranche of more than $1 billion.
He said the depreciation of the Pakistani currency had also made it impossible for them to supply the products. The Pakistani currency has depreciated by around Rs100 against the greenback over the last one year amid a drop in export revenue, remittances and foreign direct investment.
“We cannot meet the demand of public and private hospitals, clinics and medical labs in this situation,” he continued.
“Ultimately, patients have been suffering since the prices of medical tests, surgeries and treatment have already increased exponentially.”
The Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) said the shortage of devices was “severely impacting” the wellbeing of patients, who needed advanced respiratory support or intensive care due to cardiac arrest or for major surgeries.
“Stents for heart patients and necessary equipment for ventilators are unavailable in the market,” PMA secretary-general Dr. Abdul Ghafoor Shoro told Arab News.
“There is a crisis-level shortage of health care devices and doctors are resorting to rationing and triage to save lives of critical patients.”
When approached, the Pakistani health ministry said it had already written a letter to the central bank to include “imports of medicines and health care devices in the priority list.”
“We are aware of the situation and tracking it on daily basis with all stakeholders,” Sajid Hussain Shah, a health ministry spokesperson, told Arab News.
“Yes, the cost of everything has gone up with the rupee’s depreciation, but public hospitals are still trying their best to provide maximum services and treatment for free.”