RIGA - Latvia's struggling healthcare system has become an increasing priority in recent months, with the government introducing a number of new projects. As recently as Aug. 30, the Latvian Public Health Agency, together with Dutch experts, launched the project "Public Health Monitoring and Reporting System Development." The program envisages a computerized public health monitoring and reporting system, to be initiated by 2008.
The high-tech project would summarize information from all of Latvia's health institutions about prevalent diseases, common injuries and other medical factors.
Geert van Etten, director of the Dutch School of Public and Occupational Health, said that Latvia was the first new EU member state to begin implementing such a project.
"Right now, there is a high level of heart and blood diseases, cancerous growths and mental diseases in Latvia," Oskars Velmers said in a interview with the Latvijas Vestnesis newspaper, adding that this level was much higher than in other EU states.
The Public Health Agency's main task is to work out an efficient public health policy. So far, the agency has focused on the epidemiological control of infectious diseases.
Lesser efforts have been made toward heart and blood disease prevention, which is needy of EU assistance.
International health experts conclude that only 20 percent of a nation's overall health quality depends on its medical system. A dominant 80 percent is influenced by the country's socioeconomic situation. However as Latvia's economy sprints ahead, much of its health care system has been left in the dust.
The direst situation is in Latvia's provinces. In July 2006, the Health Ministry decided to grant 15,000 lats (21,300 euros) in start-up costs for each pediatrician who would agree to work in one of Latvia's 10 most needy rural towns.
During a recent interview with Latvian Radio, Health Minister Gundars Berzins said there were towns that had lacked a general practitioner for as many as seven years. Meanwhile, doctors line up for certain medical practices in Riga.
Speaking about the Baltic state's serious shortage of medical workers, Berzins stressed that he would not accept doctors from Belarus or other Eastern countries. Yet he remained optimistic about the domestic situation.
"I can say with full responsibility that ministers in neighboring countries shed a sad tear or two upon learning how much the government has earmarked for us during the next cycle," said Berzins, speaking about health care allocations from EU structural funds for 2007-2013.
Ineta Zirina is also sanguine. "One of the best perspectives is a realized health promotion program in cooperation with international organizations and EU partnership, as well as projects at national, regional and local levels with a multi-sector approach," she said.
In 2001, Latvia's Health Ministry approved a public health strategy that defines the responsibilities of each ministry. Yet the government lacks the funds to implement this policy.
Ineta Zarina, a representative of Latvia's Health Promotion System, mentioned political instability, insufficient funding and lack of effective system management as the main reasons behind the nation's poor health.
Velmers echoed this point, adding that an up-to-date public health monitoring system was necessary. "We need information based on evidence," he said.
Velmers used the Netherlands as an example. The Netherlands, he said, introduced a public health monitoring system about 15 years ago, and much progress has been seen since then.
He promised that Dutch health experts would visit Latvia in the near future to help improve the Baltic state's public health monitoring system.