In a landmark development for Bhutan’s healthcare sector, the nation’s first-ever heart center was inaugurated at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), on September 7, 2023, offering new hope to countless patients and potentially saving the government a substantial sum on cardiovascular referrals.
The catheterization laboratory, which officially opened its doors on September 7, is expected to reduce government expenses on cardiovascular referral cases by a staggering 90%. The Ministry of Health views the introduction of this state-of-the-art facility as a critical step in eliminating the need for Bhutanese patients to seek cardiac treatment abroad, thereby alleviating both emotional and financial burdens on patients and their families.
The move is also projected to significantly cut down on the cost of overseas patient referrals, a burden that has cost the government approximately Nu. 300-700 million annually. Shockingly, around 4% of this expense was allocated to treating cardiovascular diseases alone.
Cardiovascular disease is a pressing issue in Bhutan, as it falls within the realm of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which the country is prioritizing in its national plan for prevention and control. Currently, the Ministry of Health refers 90% of heart-related cases outside the country, leading to substantial financial outlays.
According to the National Health Accounts (NHA) records for 2018/19, approximately Nu. 27.89 million was allocated for NCDs. For the fiscal year 2018/19, the government’s health expenditure exceeded Nu. 2,335.1 million, with the following fiscal year seeing an even higher figure of Nu. 3,117.3 million. Within this expenditure, the government spent Nu. 237.46 million and Nu. 301.66 million for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases in the respective years.
The government has consistently spent between Nu. 300 million and Nu. 700 million on overseas referrals each year, with a notable portion directed towards cardiovascular disease treatment.
The introduction of the heart center aligns with Bhutan’s constitutional commitment to provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicine. It marks a significant advancement in tertiary healthcare, one that is expected to yield substantial dividends.
During the inauguration, Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo, the Minister of Health, stressed that the new laboratory would not only save government expenses on patient referrals for heart disease but also reduce the emotional burden on patients and their families. She lamented the substantial financial losses incurred by Bhutan due to cardiovascular referrals, stating, “Bhutan loses millions of amounts in cardiovascular referral treatment.”
The new cardiac catheterization laboratory will enable prompt intervention and management of various cardiac conditions, potentially saving lives. Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo expressed gratitude to His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo for the support that made the establishment of the Heart Center possible.
Dr. Mahesh Gurung, an intervention cardiologist at JDWNRH, noted that heart-related diseases have been on the rise in Bhutan from 2016 to 2023. Currently, more than 80% of the approximately, 100 patients referred overseas each year require the services of a catheterization laboratory. With the equipped lab now available domestically, timely intervention, diagnosis, and treatment can be provided, reducing the financial burden on both the government and patients.
However, Dr. Mahesh acknowledged that managing the duties with only one cardiologist would be a challenge.
The newly established facility boasts cutting-edge cardiac imaging and intervention tools, enabling Bhutanese doctors to perform minimally invasive procedures and accurate diagnoses for a wide range of heart conditions. Procedures such as cardiac catheterization, crucial for diagnosing and treating coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and structural heart defects, can now be performed within the country.
Currently, there are 50 patients awaiting cardiac catheterization services, underscoring the pressing demand for such facilities within Bhutan.
The laboratory was established with funds donated by His Majesty the Fourth King after the Asahi Glass Foundation of Japan awarded the 2022 Blue Planet Prize. It is hoped that this catheterization laboratory will empower Bhutanese healthcare professionals to save lives and strengthen their expertise in cardiac care.
The equipment for the facility was procured at a cost of Nu. 70 million from Wipro GE Healthcare Private Limited, a Joint Venture (JV) between General Electric Company, USA, and Wipro Enterprises Limited, India, established in 1990.
Sangay Rabten from Thimphu