Moscow's ambulance service in critical condition
May 7, 1997
Web posted at: 5:11 a.m. EDT (0911 GMT)
From Correspondent Betsy Aaron
MOSCOW (CNN) -- The already bad news about the state of Russian health is getting worse, according to recent government reports.
Almost twice as many people died than were born in 1995, the most recent year figures were available. Russia's death rate is higher than any European or American country and higher than most Asian and African states.
Surprisingly, age is not the culprit. Experts say the decline of living standards and the collapse of the health-care system are the causes.
In Moscow, at least, the decision has been made to try and keep some semblance of an actual health-care system. Their first goal: trying to improve ambulance service, the city's first line of medical defense.
But is it working?
An ambulance trying to answer a call for help can't get through traffic. Like countries all over the world, the law says, "Get out of the way for ambulances." But in practice, few people do.
"It doesn't matter whether your lights are flashing or not; they still don't let you through. They try to cut you off," says ambulance driver Ivanovich Illyin. "There is no respect at all for ambulances, even with sirens."
Phone system unreliable
Moscow's entire ambulance service is run out of one central station. All phone calls for help come into the station, but this too is a problem. The phone system in Moscow is anything but reliable. Some 8,000 calls a day are logged, but if you can't get through, you can't get help.
"People complain they can't get through to us, but it's not that we don't want to pick up the receiver. It's because the calls don't reach us," says Irina Chernishova of the Moscow Ambulance Hotline. "And it happens that while speaking with a caller, we get cut off."
Igor Elkis, the director of the city's ambulance service, says he would raise doctor's salaries if he could. Right now, they get $300 a month. Unlike many other working Russians, they do get their checks on time. But extra staff is needed, along with more modern equipment and facilities.
"The government should provide health care and life-saving to its citizens," Elkis says.
With more money, there would be computers to route calls instead of the hand-written slips of information delivered by hand from secretaries to field dispatchers, who then call ambulance dispatchers in the field.
There is also the frustration that comes when a patient is lost.
"Our greatest responsibility is that the patient doesn't die through some fault of ours," Chernishova says.
That desire to save lives remains constant. So is the dedication to improve the quality of life.
In a country where so much needs fixing, Moscow's emergency care workers are hoping they're beginning to make a difference.
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