For a change, I thought I’d post a blog entry that’s not some self-indulgent narcissistic claptrap about what I’ve been doing at the weekends, nor a semi-racist rant about working and living in a foreign country; instead I thought I’d expound a little on the organisation that I’m working for, and what I’m doing for them. And then pad it out with self-indulgent narcissistic claptrap and semi-racist ranting.
The BCVI (Belize Council for the Visually Impaired) is a non-profit NGO that works across the country to improve the eye health of the population (especially the section of the population that can’t afford private eye care). They do this by offering eye tests, making prescription glasses and performing eye surgery. They employ optometrists (who test the patients’ sight and prescribe the glasses), an ophthalmologist (who performs the surgeries), and lab technicians (who make the glasses), as well as the usual detachment of admin and support staff, including little old me in the IT department. The optometrists, ophthalmologist and lab staff are primarily concerned with restoring sight or preventing further sight loss. For people who can’t be helped that way (those who are irrevocably blind or who have some incurable eye problem), the BCVI also employs rehab officers, who go out into the various districts round the country, helping those people to become integrated into society, working with children and adults at school, at work and in the home. As a result, the BCVI provides the most comprehensive eye care across the country (far more comprehensive than any private clinic, and at a far cheaper cost to the patient). It’s been instrumental in reducing cataracts and glaucoma across the country, in providing glasses and medication to people who might otherwise lose their sight, and in supporting those people who already have. It’s an organisation that seems more interested in actually helping people than making money, and I’m proud to be doing my bit for them.
2011 is the BCVI’s 30th birthday. After many years of receiving funding from various donors, the global financial situation of the last few years has had an effect on those donors, who’ve been forced to lower, or remove, their funding. So the BCVI has had to look at operating less like a charity and more like a business, keeping a tighter rein on their outgoings, looking at areas in which they can save money (and make more money), and generally becoming less reliant on outside funding and more self-sustainable. And the first step to saving and making money is to know where it’s coming from and going to. And that’s where I come in.
To better manage the finances of the clinics, the BCVI has got hold of an accounting software program called QuickBooks (notice I said ‘got hold of’ and not ‘purchased’, I don’t know of any organisation or individual who has legitimately bought software in Belize, or CDs or DVDs for that matter – every program, CD and DVD I’ve ever used here is a copy, and there are shops full of pirated music, films and video games, often with a room in the back full of PCs and disc burners churning out the copies. And this isn’t some underground industry, it’s not some secret market populated by suspicious-looking hustlers whispering at you from the shadows; it’s a well-known, high-profile part of the country’s economy [although there may well be dodgy ‘businessmen’ making shady deals at some point in the supply chain and, due to the nature of international copyright law, it is illegal]. In fact, I’ve never actually seen a legitimate music/film/game store, so there’s nowhere to buy your CDs and DVDs legally, even if you wanted to. Unlike South-East Asia or China, Belize hasn’t diversified into faking other things, like clothes or watches [any visitor to these countries will know there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can’t be faked – I once visited a fake Hard Rock Café in Saigon! And on a Channel 4 documentary in 2009, a chemist in China was shown making fake eggs!]; the Belizeans have stuck to the digital products – maybe there isn’t the demand for (or the ability to copy) fake Levis or counterfeit Rolexes. Everyone’s complicit in it – even the national TV channels show copied movies – I watched The Hangover Part 2 on TV last month, before it had even been released in cinemas [admittedly it was terrible quality and had Russian subtitles at the bottom]).
Anyway, back to the QuickBooks – the software needed to be installed and set up at the BCVI’s five clinics, data from an old Access database had to be imported, then each installation had to be adjusted for the location and users. Once the technical stuff was done, I spent up to a week training the staff and supporting them in their first exposure to the new system (which is always much more interesting [or stressful, depending on your experiences] than working with computers). All this has given me the opportunity to visit each clinic, meet the staff, and spend time in different parts of the county. Since then, I’ve worked at adding extra functionality to the program (such as various reports), as well as developing the correct processes and procedures for the clinics to use with all this new technology.
Now that QuickBooks is up and running, the clinics can keep better track of their income and investigate any financial discrepancies; the lab manager can see which items are selling well, which ones aren’t selling, and which ones need replacing; the customers receive a better service; and the management team have a clearer idea of the organisation’s overall income, outgoings and costs.
Of course, all this is precisely the point of technology – to automate the repetitive tasks, to do the number-crunching, to provide more/better information; to make tasks more efficient, jobs easier, people more productive. But when you work in corporate IT, most of the time you’re working for a large international shareholder-ran concern, and you’re doing all this work to satisfy the bottom line – you’re using technology to save money, or to make money, and the customers hardly ever see the benefits. The savings and profits end up going into the Chairman’s pension fund, or towards the CEO’s new villa. And while I don’t object to the people responsible for financial improvements, the people prepared to make the tough decisions, being rewarded, often it seems that these people are rewarded even when things go wrong (and things have gone horribly wrong for many companies over the last few years). Overseen a bumper year for your company due to sound financial planning? Have a bonus. Watched your company haemorrhage money after a series of disastrous decisions? Have a bonus anyway. Then leave, speaking publicly about how you’ve been so proud to work with such a great team for such a distinguished brand, whilst simultaneously being responsible for the workforce being sacked and the brand looking like a joke. Then spend the rest of your working life as a consultant, advising other companies on how to squeeze every last penny from their customers and staff, while you move yourself and your millions around the world’s tax havens. Welcome to capitalism!
Anyway, left-wing rant aside, it’s refreshing to be working for an organisation that uses its money to improve its services for its customers. How novel! If the BCVI can make more money from people who can afford to pay, they can use it to subsidise the people who can’t; they can hire some foreign ophthalmologists to come over and perform some surgeries that our resident doctor isn’t qualified to do. They can purchase a new braille machine for printing books for the blind. They can buy a wider range of frames, so the customers have even more choice. And they can provide these services to people who might be so poor that they simply can’t afford them, and who might otherwise be destined to a life of slowly deteriorating vision and eventual blindness. Compared to most company’s corporate visions, that’s quite a nice one.
The other piece of technology I’m helping to implement is the BHIS (Belize Health Information System). Owned by the government’s Ministry of Health, this is a countrywide web-based database that stores clinical information about every patient in Belize. Every clinic, hospital and lab in the country will eventually have access to this system, and will use it to record details of patients and their visits: information is recorded about the patient’s existing medical conditions, allergies, vaccinations, etc., and separate sections record every time they visit a doctor – medical complaints, test results, diagnoses, surgical procedures, drug prescriptions, the works. When a patient comes into a clinic to have an eye test, the test results can be sent to the lab to be used as the prescription for making the glasses; and every piece of information about the patient and their visit is saved and can be accessed by the staff later. And because it’s web-based, that information can be accessed by all the staff in all the clinics, as well as by staff at many other facilities in the country. So health workers have access to all the information they need, and patient care should improve as a result. The UK’s NHS patient database is years behind schedule and billions of pounds over budget, and little old Belize manages to get one up and running in five years and at a cost of US$ 30 million. (Side note: I probably shouldn’t compare the UK’s system with Belize’s, as the UK has a population 200 times that of Belize, and the UK’s system is going to be far more comprehensive than Belize’s [if it ever gets finished; and now we have a new government there’s even talk of scrapping it!]. Plus the UK has a long and illustrious history of abject incompetence when it comes to delivering large-scale projects of all kinds – the Millennium Dome, Wembley Stadium, Heathrow Terminal 5, the Child Support Agency’s computer payment system, the Prison Service’s Offender Management System, the Passport Agency’s IT system, the list goes on and on. And we’re hosting the Olympics next year. God help us!). But my point is that the BHIS, like QuickBooks, will help keep track of patients’ information, and as a result make the staff’s jobs easier, the customers’ service better (which could literally be the difference between life and death in a clinical situation), the management team’s ‘big picture’ clearer, and the organisation more self-sustainable. And if I can leave having helped to achieve that I’ll be happy.