Malta needs a second national hospital to keep up with its growing population, Health Minister Jo Etienne Abela has said.

Abela believes the Gwardamangia area that includes St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals is ideally placed to serve that function, as part of a broader “health village”.

St Luke’s Hospital is mostly closed and in a dilapidated state, while Karin Grech serves as a rehabilitation hospital. Both facilities were taken back by the government after a court annulled contracts with Steward Health Care, which was meant to revamp them as part of a privatisation deal.

The minister’s idea – which he acknowledged is still at an embryonic stage and will need to be refined – is to shift all non-clinical services, including the medical school, away from Mater Dei Hospital and to the Gwardamangia “health village”.

That would allow “every nook and cranny of Mater Dei to be used for clinical purposes,” he said.

Apart from maximising the clinical floor area at Mater Dei, the minister said he is also keen to enlarge the hospital "where the concrete allows us to". 

Concrete used to build parts of the hospital was of inferior quality, reducing its load-bearing capacity.  

Developing such infrastructure would take years, and Abela acknowledged that he would not be the minister to see it to fruition.  

"We politicians are focused on short-term goals, but it's important that those goals align with our longer-term vision for the country," he said. "We need to ensure the country is prepared for what it needs 20, 30 years down the line."

Private sector could be involved in ER

Abela said he did not exclude the possibility of another private firm being brought in to beef up front-end emergency medical services, though he made it clear that if this happened, public healthcare would remain free to access.

“Just as we use private sector services to slash hospital waiting lists, we could do the same to bolster emergency services,” Abela told radio show host Andrew Azzopardi on RTK 103.

“The emergency room needs to expand,” he said. “Our healthcare infrastructure needs to expand.”

Mater Dei Hospital, which currently serves as the country's sole national hospital. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiMater Dei Hospital, which currently serves as the country's sole national hospital. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Lack of workers

But the minister also emphasised that the challenge is not just of a lack of infrastructure or physical space, but also of human resources. Most of Europe has had to contend with a shortage of healthcare workers for several years, and Malta is no exception.

He cited the example of radiographers, who are in short supply, and said that it made no sense for the University of Malta to restrict its annual intake of students to just 15.

While Malta currently relies on importing healthcare workers from poorer countries, such as India and the Philippines, the minister believes the existing steady stream of workers will reduce to a trickle when working conditions in their home countries improve.

Mental health hospital plans

When asked about his plans to expand mental health services, Abela noted that work to renovate the existing facility, Mount Carmel Hospital in Attard, was in full swing and confirmed long-promised plans to shift acute mental health care to the Mater Dei area.

The minister said his preference was for such care to be provided directly within Mater Dei, though he said he was also open to it being done in an area close to the state hospital.

Abela’s predecessor as minister, Chris Fearne, had presented parliament with a plan to develop such a facility in Swatar, connected to Mater Dei via an underground pedestrian tunnel.

“I’ve seen those plans, but where possible, and where the concrete can take it, I would rather focus on expanding Mater Dei,” Abela said on Saturday.

Correction February 3, 2024: A previous version stated that St Luke's Hospital is closed. Parts of it are still operational as outpatient departments.

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