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EDITORIAL: About time somebody gave some thought to coming up with a sustainable mechanism for widening access to rehab and assistive technology (AT) services to help suffering patients and lessen the burden of overstretched government departments.

Credit must therefore go to Learning, Acting and Building for Rehabilitation in Health Systems (ReLAB-HS), which organised a two-day policy roundtable in Islamabad that gathered key stakeholders and experts to deliberate on critical issues concerning reimbursement for and standardisation of AT.

Already, this event shows promise to become a vital platform for “fostering discussion, promoting collaboration, and catalysing policy initiatives” in healthcare accessibility, particularly for rehabilitation and AT, which is appreciated.

ReLAB-HS is a five-year global activity funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the way it drew a diverse array of participants – including policymakers, rehabilitation and healthcare professionals, industry representatives, advocacy experts and even faculty from Johns Hopkins University – show the importance all stakeholders attach to the largely overlooked area of rehab and AT.

It’s understandable that the biggest challenges relate to reimbursement policies and standardisation practices in the provision of assistive products in the country. Healthcare professionals pointed out that Pakistan is already doing “significant work to provide rehabilitation and AT services through social security schemes”, but a lot more needs to be done to widen access to such schemes and reduce the burden on government institutions. This is where ReLAB-HS’s initiative can and should be a gamechanger.

It turns out that a good 94 percent of AT users in the country bear out-of-pocket expenses, which shows why so many individuals with functional limitations are unable to leverage such facilities. Also, the 2019 Global Burden of Disease study highlighted that one in five Pakistanis experienced health conditions and could benefit from rehabilitation, yet only 20pc of that demographic had access to necessary assistive products.

As ReLAB-HS director pointed out at the roundtable, there is an urgent need for collaboration between government entities, the private sector, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to “streamline reimbursement mechanisms for assistive products, which are presently convoluted and redundant”. He rightly stressed that “facilitating connections” between individuals in need of such products and relevant organisations would alleviate the burden on health departments.

Such issues are not too difficult to handle, provided there is the right kind of needs assessment and subsequent debate. And ReLAB-HS has provided the platform for just such discussions. It is a landmark pioneering effort that is capable of bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders who have already laid the groundwork for collaborative efforts to enhance reimbursement policies and standardisation practices. This will ultimately improve access and quality of life for people in desperate need of rehabilitation.

Now the biggest test will be keeping this initiative from running out of steam; as often happens in these parts. Rehab is a largely overlooked phenomenon in medical treatment in the country. With the government incapable of and unable to provide relief to a vast majority of patients, collaborative efforts will have to find solutions. ReLAB-HS and its efforts need to be watched closely and supported.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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