Private clinics being used in government drug theft scheme


Private clinics are being used by personnel manning pharmacies in government health centres and district hospitals to steal essential medicines most of which make up the essential health package.

The syndicates, we can report, comprise, among others, pharmacy assistants, technicians and some senior hospital staff in some cases including nurses and clinicians.

Investigations by Malawi News in Karonga and Mzuzu have revealed that most health centres that are located in rural areas face persistent drug stock outs, a situation that mostly forces patients to seek assistance directly at district or regional hospitals.


At Karonga District Hospital (KDH) where we based much of our investigation, we discovered that hospital staff deliberately run multiple prescriptions for some patients with the aim of beating the system.

An insider said clinicians as well as drug management staff connive to come up with a number of prescriptions with arranged patients who in turn collect the medicine ready for sale in private clinics.

“Sometimes, it is the hospital staff that work in private clinics that collect the medication to the clinics using referral ambulances or hand bags when they are knocking off or accompanying patients. Of course, you cannot rule out the involvement of some ambulance drivers,” the source said.


It has also transpired that some medical staff at KDH deliberately refer patients to private clinics for them to buy medicines that are allegedly stolen from the government hospital.

Evance Mphezi, owner of Care Private Clinic, admitted that his facility gets patients referred from KHD.

He however distanced the clinic from links with hospital staff at KDH.

“Almost on daily basis I get patients that are referred with prescriptions from KDH if their drugs are out of stock. Though people buy from here, it is not like the people are referred directly here, they are told to go to any pharmacy with the prescriptions,” Mphezi said.

A presentation by acting Karonga District Health Officer Lewis Tukula at a National Aids Commission funded Northern Health Zone (NHZ) 2015 / 16 performance appraisal meeting outlined a number of drugs such as LA which the hospital had not had for a period of over three months.

The zone registered four drug thefts in the 2015/16 financial year.

A retired District Health Officer who also runs a clinic in the district said: “All the districts are facing the same problem but for Karonga it is worse. Some staff overstay in district hospitals and the ministry has to make sure it rotates staff. Drug pilferage is infections,” he said.

In Mzuzu, a Mzuzu Central Hospital Laboratory Assistant, Kondwani Kanthenga, was in November sentenced to 216 months imprisonment with hard labour (IHL) by the Mzuzu Senior Resident Magistrate Court for possessing medical drugs and equipment without a licence.

Kanthenga was arrested after being found with various medical drugs and equipment at his house in Mzuzu worth K2.9 million.

He was found with a box of malaria drugs and antibiotics he intended to transport to Lilongwe and a search at his home found 12 more cartons of assorted medical drugs and equipment bearing Ministry of Health labels.

It has also emerged that some facilities are asking for money from patients when the services are supposed to be free.

In one case, KHD Hospital Advisory Committee members alerted hospital authorities at an interface meeting organised by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in November last year about some staff that were demanding payment from patients for services that were supposed to be free sometime in November last year.

Walusako Munde, one of the clients at the facility, said he had been asked to K 2000 for the treatment of his relative.

“Apart from my relative, there were many other patients at the hospital who were left unattended to because we refused to pay for medication,” Munde said.

In addition, some health workers have been abusing government permission for them to work in private facilities at their free time by using this as a channel to siphon drugs out of the government system.

In a letter dated January 12, 2017 addressed all hospital directors and District Health Officers (DHO), government has warned against the malpractices.

The letter, signed by acting Secretary for Health Chimwemwe Banda, warns staff against abusing poor Malawians who are being made to pay for services which they are supposed to get for free.

“Staff demand payment in the orthopaedic section from patients to be put in Plaster of Paris, in Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) clinics for patients to be put on treatment, in surgical section for patients to be on surgery list, in pharmacy where patients are made to pay for certain kind of medicines,” it reads.

Some staff, it says, bring private patients into public hospitals for various diagnostic procedures and charge them at their private clinics.

It further says patients are in some cases referred from the public facility to hospital personnel’s private clinics for management that can be offered at the public facility they work at.

“By themselves, such acts are enough grounds of dismissal and be warned that we will not hesitate to take drastic action to root out this malpractice,” reads the letter.

Government says Malawi loses over K5 billion worth of drugs every year due to theft.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe said the department is engaging communities to curb drug theft and other malpractices in public health facilities.

“We are empowering communities to help provide surveillance on what has been received against what has been issued. The communities have also been empowered to check private players on the sources of their medicines,” Chikumbe said.

‘This story has been supported by the Center for Investigative
Journalism and the National Integrity Platform with financial
assistance from GIZ’.

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