Filed under: Anticorruption Development 2.0 Guest posts Health

In Serbia, the health system is publicly financed from obligatory health insurance. It promises universal medical coverage for everyone.

However, for many reasons, some physicians take bribes from patients before or after they provide services covered by law. Because there is no alternative, most people are afraid to report corruption, fearing that doctors might deny services.

As a result, there is a widespread perception among citizens that all doctors in Serbia are corrupt.

Serbia on the move

Three years ago, a group of Serbian physicians and citizens started to deal with this issue and we created Serbia on the move.

We launched our first campaign “I am not on the take, I work for a salary,” to encourage those doctors who are not corrupt to stand up for the dignity of their profession.

Around 70 percent of doctors stated that they are not corrupt and wear a button saying that they do not take bribes.

However, the question remained: How do the patients know who the good and honest doctors are?

To address this, we launched a new national website called “What’s Your Doctor Like?” (in Serbian).

The purpose of the website is twofold:

  1. To allow Serbian patients to share their experiences with health services, backed up by 40 teams of 230 activists who will pressure health institutions to deal with doctors who are poorly evaluated
  2. To personalize responsibility for professional work by allowing patients to evaluate individual physicians

The procedure is simple: go to the website, type in the name of your doctor and answer three questions:

  • Did your doctor listen to you?
  • Do you trust your doctor?
  • Would you recommend your doctor to your family and friends?

The site also allows patients to report corruption to the state prosecutor’s office.

The idea is to expose the bad doctors and support the good ones.

A response beyond our expectations …

The website was launched on 17 November, 2012 with the goal that as many as 10,000 would eventually visit the site by the end of January.

In first ten days we had 30,000 visitors: 12,650 patient comments, and 5,000 out of 22,696 physicians evaluated.

“We believe that an opportunity for patients to share their experiences is not a threat to doctors, but a chance to open a dialogue to improve health care in Serbia. The only doctors who should be afraid of this website are those who have been corrupt. The first seven days prove this claim. Fully 85% of doctors got the average grade higher than 4.1 (on 1-5 scale). People are not hesitant to encourage good doctors and share good experiences as well. And they don’t want to be silenced.”

Predrag Stojicic, Serbia on the move

…quickly stopped by the law

Before we started the project, we got official approval (in the form of a letter) from the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection stating that the website was legal according to existing legislation in Serbia.

However, the same institution, based on invasion of privacy complaints by some Serbian physicians, ordered us to remove data about the doctors, claiming that it is a breach of the law concerning personal data protection.

After only ten days of working, the online evaluation of the doctors was shut down.

Within hours of being shut down, there was a public outcry, and all mainstream and social media published the story.

From online to on-the-ground

This required a change of tactics and we focused our efforts on two things:

  1. Pressuring the Commissioner’s Office to change his opinion (through an organized telephone blockade)
  2. Mobilize as many people and organize a public event on 9 December

It was the moment where our campaign shifted from online to “on-the-ground,” but the recruitment effort was mainly organized over the Internet.

The Internet was the tool to get interested citizens to support us. More than 350 new people expressed their interest to become part of the campaign and various institutions and NGOs contacted us to express their support.

On 5 December, (the same day we had successfully blocked the Commissioner’s phone) we ended up being on a prime time national TV show OKO magazine” (in Serbian) with medical associations and a representative from the Commissioner’s office.

As a result, the mobilization became even bigger: one of the doctors said that we didn’t need the Internet and we could just use feedback patients leave in a book after their hospital stay.

It was a clear battle between the past and the future.

3,000 signatures in 5 days

Since the institutions decided to stand behind the law, we decided to start an initiative to change it!

In five days we collected around 3,000 signatures for a petition that we handed over to the Ministry of Health, followed by the action of volunteers (in Serbian).

The fight is still ongoing, institutions moved us back and forth, each of them stating that they are not in charge, making us feel that we can’t change anything.

However, due to the commitment from people involved in the campaign, Voice for Health councils was founded in five cities in Serbia: Novi Sad, Uzice, Vranje, Belgrade and Nis.

These citizen groups will maintain the pressure and advocate for accountability in the health sector.

Today the law is still in the procedure.

But in the meantime we brought back the website, enabling patients to evaluate the services in the health care facilities.

So what is the next step?

Building more power within the constituency to prepare the next campaign that will make our change possible.

>> Follow updates about our battle for more accountability in the health sector in Serbia

* This post reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessary reflect UNDP’s official position.