Supporting Nepal’s health: Dr Arne Drews shares how Nepalmed Foundation is helping to enhance Nepal’s health care system

“I decided to do something real for the colleagues in Nepal, who tackle problems of poor health, nutrition and poverty.”

NL Today

  • Read Time 7 min.

When Dr Arne Drews first came to Nepal, he was moved by the poor status of public health and equally poor conditions of health facilities in the country. It was then that he decided he would do something to contribute to improving the overall health situation of the Himalayan nation. That was 30 years ago.

Today, Dr Arne Drews, a pulmonologist, lives in Grimma, about two hours drive on the motorway from Berlin. He is 51, married, and has three children. But his heart is in Nepal and he often comes here to support Nepali health facilities.

Co-founder of Nepalmed Foundation, an NGO supporting Nepali partners in health care which was established 22 years ago, he devotes much of his time for the organization as its chairperson. In 2017, he wrote his first Nepal detective story entitled Himalaya Gold: A Nepal Detective Story. His seventh story is about to be published next month. Nepal Live Today had an extensive conversation with Dr Drews around Nepal’s health and the programs implemented by his organization. 

You have been contributing to the cause of promoting health services in Nepal. What motivated you to become involved in this area?

When I first came to Nepal in 1992, I was a medical student. I went to Model Hospital in Bagbazar to get an exposure to what health care in Nepal was like. It was very interesting to learn about diseases such as tetanus and Kala Azar which I only knew from textbooks. During this time, Model Hospital sent me to visit a health post in Wasbang, serving the Chepangs in Chitwan district. I had never before seen such poor health and nutrition conditions. 

However, I was very much impressed by the Nepali doctors and nurses who were working under conditions so much different from that of Germany. Then I decided I would work to support them one day.

When you first arrived in Nepal how did you find this country and people?

The mountains were incredible, but I was even more impressed by the people and their culture. When I met the representatives of Public Health Concern Trust (PHECT) and Model Hospital it changed my life. After graduating from medical university, I got a job in a German hospital, earning my own money. 

Then I decided to do something real for the colleagues in Nepal who were tackling the problems of poor health, nutrition and poverty.

What is the Nepalmed Foundation actually? In what sectors and areas does it work in Nepal?

Nepalmed supports Nepali activities in health care especially in rural areas. Since 2000, when it started with 13 members, Nepalmed has been growing to 700 members and sponsors worldwide. We concentrate on a few partners only to secure a long-standing cooperation. Our main Nepali partners are the Amppipal Hospital in Gorkha and its surrounding health posts, as well as Kirtipur Hospital and Model Hospital, where we support investment in medical infrastructure. Our third main area is a number of health posts in Solukhumbu. We also support partners like Indu Sah Foundation providing dental care in rural Janakpur, trauma surgery in Bayalpata Hospital in Accham and grassroots projects of Club 50 in Kathmandu Valley, not to forget Matrika Eye Center in Kathmandu, which provides eye check-ups for school children.

Your works at Amppipal hospital and Kirtipur hospital are widely appreciated. What actually did your organization do there?

We give advice on how to optimize workflow, save resources and improve working and living conditions of staff and patients. We also give financial support.

In Amppipal, Nepalmed sponsors renovation and construction of hospital buildings, toilets, water filter stations, waste incinerators, solar warm water, photovoltaic and medical instruments among others. Nepalmed also invests in ensuring road access and hospital vehicles, even a bus for daily patient transport.

In Kirtipur, we supported the construction work and subsequent furnishing and equipment of several departments. It began in 2015 with Siemens x-ray and CT scanner for radiology, followed by Karl Storz endoscopy for several departments, spirometry, and a training cabinet for basic life support. We sponsor the Nepal Ambulance Service Car at Kirtipur. Last year we sponsored the construction of the trauma ward and the pediatric ward. They were handed over in presence of a big group of Nepalmed supporters, Mayor of Kirtipur Ramesh Maharjan and German Ambassador to Nepal  Dr Thomas Prinz in February this year.

You also provide training to health professionals. What new things do the participants learn in the training sessions?

In the training cabinet in Kirtipur, medical professionals as well as all interested lay people like teachers and school children, the city administration and trekking guides learn how to provide basic life support. We send medical specialists for training in various fields like neurology of trauma surgery.

“Since 2008, I have given 15 training sessions in lung function, training some 213 participants and donating 14 spirometers to the hospitals.”

Our vascular surgeons teach operating on blood vessels with improvised animal models. Since 2008, I have given 15 training sessions in lung function, training some 213 participants and donating 14 spirometers to the hospitals. I am proud to be a founding member of the Nepali Respiratory Society which was founded in Patan in 2019.

What other activities does your organization carry out?

In Germany, we mainly run events for fundraising. We sell our own yearly calendars with photos of Nepal. We have formed our own publishing house called Edition Nepalmed to publish and distribute the books our members write. They include short stories, photo books and detective novels. We also organize tours to Nepal for our members and supporters to show them how our partners work. They also visit the world heritage sites of your beautiful country.

In Nepal, we are talking to and connecting players in the field of health care.

You are a medical doctor in Germany. Where do you find Nepal’s health services in comparison to Germany and other developed countries?

Health care in Germany is not comparable with Nepal. Our system of health insurance covers a wide range of diagnostics and latest advances in treatments for virtually everyone. You can freely choose between specialized doctors in private practice. It is a great exception on this planet. We are very fortunate in Germany, but people get used to it. A sizable proportion of the German population now takes it for granted and complains without reflecting on where we came from and what health care looks like in other countries. 

Based on my 30 years of traveling to Nepal, I can say that health care in Nepal has improved considerably, especially in Kathmandu valley and university hospitals like Dharan. Immunization campaigns reach nearly all corners of the country and successful steps have been taken to improve mother and child health and family planning. The growing average age of the population and the reduced number of children per family are the outcomes of these measures.

But there are areas that require change. For example, medical coverage in the rural areas is still not always as good as desired. But I am confident that the federal structure under the new constitution will help target the needy population even better.

What is the most satisfying moment for you as a chair of NepalMed?

Without any doubt, the happiest moment was when we could introduce universal health insurance in Gorkha district, especially the Amppipal Hospital area. About 80 percent of the patients in the out-patient department are now insured. This means a great step to overcome the vicious circle of poverty when people often have to pay for a treatment bill by selling their land or livestock. All the steps our partners have taken, with or without our little help, have provided a base for the insurance leading the way to include as many people as possible.

Nepal and Germany also share a very cordial relationship. In your opinion, what will be the role of organizations like yours in promoting the bonding between the two countries?

Our countries indeed share a very special relationship. NGOs in Germany are in the lucky situation of holding regular consultations with the relevant German ministries and the Nepali embassy and consulates. 

It is a very fortunate and fruitful relation which provides the German NGOs with a sense of knowledge of the political situation and how to proceed in order to define and achieve meaningful goals. I am very confident that what organizations like Nepalmed do on the grassroot level is the ultimate base of human relations. It relates to ordinary people and therefore helps forming strong bonds between peoples of the two countries. These private connections lead to an exchange of ideas, individual progress and eventually to economic connections and prosperity for many.

What are the new plans of NepalMed in Nepal?

We continue our long-term cooperation with our partners. A major concern is the conservation of the environment and considerate use of resources like water purification and sewage treatment as well as clean air by smokeless ovens and reforestation.

“Nepalmed supports Nepali activities in health care, especially in rural areas.”

In the near future, Nepalmed aims to support the infrastructure of Amppipal Hospital like improved accommodation for the patient’s relatives and the staff. In Kirtipur Hospital, we are helping to set up a program for preventive child health, which is supported by 24 Good Deeds Germany. This program will enable regular check-ups for newborns and small children.

You live far away from Nepal. How do you manage time to serve in Nepal?

It takes a very strict time management to be able to do what I have been doing. I get up at six o’clock. After breakfast I start answering the emails or messages from Nepal. At around 07:30, I go to work in my practice. In the lunch break I do more work for Nepalmed. In the evening I need some physical exercise to relax. I write my detective novels bit by bit during holidays or at the weekend. I use my private holiday to travel to Nepal at least once a year.