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 JAN 26, 2002 SAT

Medical staff 'kill' patients for a fee from undertakers

Poland orders probe into reports that ambulance workers were paid up to $790 by funeral homes to 'convince or blackmail' families to use their services

WARSAW - The Polish authorities have ordered an investigation into accusations that medical staff may have killed patients to collect bribes from undertakers desperate for business.

The health authorities on Thursday ordered a nationwide check of emergency medical services following allegations in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza on Wednesday that ambulance workers in the central city of Lodz were paid up to 1,800 zlotys (S$790) by funeral homes to 'convince or blackmail' families to use their services.

Moreover, citing anonymous medical sources, the daily claimed that some deaths had been induced with drug overdoses by low-paid medical staff eager to collect the fee for the 'skins', or corpses.

Ambulance staff were also purposely slow to react to some calls, the sources alleged.

The accusations have shocked the country despite the fact that Poles are not overly impressed by their under-funded health-care system.

'If what Gazeta wrote is true it is appalling,' was the reaction of President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

It is 'an abandonment of all ethics, of all humanity'.

The Polish Catholic Church, which claims 90 per cent of Poland's 39 million people, also expressed its shock at the allegations.

'Even in countries with inferior culture they have more respect for the human body after death than in this case,' said the spokesman for the Polish Episcopate, Father Adam Schulz.

A national telephone hotline has been set up for people to provide police information on any suspected cases of murder or trafficking in corpses.

Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski conceded on television late on Wednesday that the government had 'lost control of the health system', and asked for patience while it examined the situation.

But if anything, the revelations are likely to kick up a new storm of criticism over the country's rundown hospitals and clinics.

A key problem, according to the husband of a doctor who earns just 1,100 zlotys per month, is low wages.

'As long as doctors earn the same as housekeepers they will succumb to all sorts of temptations to increase their wages,' he wrote in an anonymous comment posted on a popular Polish website.

It is mostly young doctors who work on the ambulances, said one doctor who asked to remain anonymous.

'They see so many human dramas that they quickly become insensitive and begin to think only about supplementing their monthly salaries which don't exceed 1,000 zlotys,' he said.

Nurses earn even less, on average about 850 zlotys per month, according to medical staff.

Many doctors and nurses are able to supplement their meagre official salaries at public hospitals and clinics with better paid work in private clinics, however.

Polish hospitals have also been criticised as being dangerous to health.

Government labour inspectors lambasted hospitals and clinics for failing to maintain sanitary norms in a report released earlier this month.

A study last year estimated that poor sanitary conditions each year caused about 500,000 patients to contract infections in Polish hospitals, resulting in 10,000 to 15,000 deaths, more than from car accidents. --AFP

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