Venezuelans seek home care for COVID-19 amid crumbling health system

By Efrain Otero and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan COVID-19 patients are paying doctors to come to their homes due to the high cost of private clinics and hospitals overflowing with patients and often lacking oxygen and medicine, doctors interviewed by Reuters said in recent weeks.

Family members tend to chip in or launch crowdfunding campaigns for infected relatives, said Laura Martinez, a 55-year-old resident of the lower middle-class Las Acacias neighborhood in western Caracas, whose husband and elderly parents were treated at home. Patients who receive home treatment for the coronavirus generally purchase respirators, oxygen tanks and anti-viral drugs.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has said that the country, whose economy is mired in a brutal recession marked by hyperinflation, is experiencing a second wave of the virus. Official data have recorded around 1,000 new cases per day in recent weeks, though many health professionals warn the true toll is likely higher.

As the new wave gathered steam throughout March and April, home care, gained popularity thanks to word of mouth and social media. Such treatment often includes house calls, an option seen as a luxury in many developed countries but rendered cheap in Venezuela by a surfeit of underpaid doctors. Home visits cost $40-$80, depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms, doctors said.

“It is the economic factor – without a doubt it is much cheaper for a doctor to visit one’s home,” Leonardo Acosta, a 25-year-old doctor, told Reuters in mid-April after a home visit in the capital Caracas.

“The cost of just being admitted to a clinic’s emergency ward is very high.”

Venezuela’s public hospitals frequently suffer from blackouts and routinely lack running water, according to medical associations who stage frequent protests over the inadequate conditions of the public health system.

Private clinics are better equipped but charge at least $1,500-$2,500 per night for inpatient care and as much as $5,000 per night for emergency care to treat acute respiratory problems.

That’s out of reach for the vast majority in a country where monthly minimum wage has not topped $5 in several years.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Patients are able to receive treatment at home as long as they do not require intubation, a delicate process that would require them to be transported to an intensive care unit, Acosta said.

For doctors, performing home visits means getting paid in U.S. dollars and making substantially more than they would in the public health system.

“I’m doing this in part for economic reasons,” said Carlos Hernandez, a 25-year-old doctor who like Acosta recently graduated from the Central University of Venezuela. He is also working in the public health system, as the country requires of recent graduates, but said he has not been paid in four months.

Given the country’s economic crisis, Acosta said he will often provide treatment even when the patient cannot pay in full.

“I understand the situation,” he said.

(Reporting by Efrain Otero, Vivian Sequera and Leonardo Fernandez; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)