Running rock star begins donating $41 million to hospitals

A Thai rock star’s big heart turned into big money for public health last week as Artiwara “Toon” Kongmalai, began donating the $41 million he raised for 11 local hospitals last December by running from Thailand’s southern border to its northernmost point over 55 days, an effort that inspired millions of Thais to contribute to his cause.

The lead singer of the chart-topping band Bodyslam, Toon thanked all the donors, contributors and the staff who supported him on his run as he bestowed the checks on representatives from the 11 hospitals during a ceremony at the Rot Fai Park in the Chatuchak district of Bangkok. The funds will be used to buy medical equipment that the hospitals could not afford.

But despite having crossed the finish line more than two months ago, Toon wasn’t finished. After the ceremony, with 2,000 fellow runners following, he embarked on a 5-kilometer run inside the park to raise another $127,000 dollars to buy two x-ray machines for a hospital in the southern province of Pattani.

Thailand has one of the best public health systems among developing nations around the world, according to the United Nations. Nonetheless, disparities in the system are significant even though successive governments have implemented policies they hoped would reduce them.

Hospitals in the capital Bangkok are better staffed and far better equipped than those in other provinces, and hospitals in a few major provincial capital cities are far better equipped than those in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. Doctors at state-run hospitals in the provinces have said that their workload is too heavy.

The doctor-to-patient ratio in Bangkok is 1:720, while in northern provinces it is 1:2,300 and in the northeast it is 1:3,200. While those figures have improved dramatically since records were first kept several decades ago, they illustrate that more needs to be done to provide equitable access to healthcare.

There are about 18,000 doctors registered with the Ministry of Public Health, and about 57 percent of them work at state hospitals. The rest are in private practice or private hospitals. Many of Thailand’s private hospitals are JCI-accredited (Joint Commission International), meaning they meet the highest international standards and consequently draw significant numbers of medical tourists from around the world.

Having visited a friend in a provincial hospital, Toon saw how overworked the doctors and nurses were, and that they lacked some basic medical equipment. Despite the fact that many young Thais idolize him, he wanted to spotlight the doctors and nurses who he said are the real heroes in society. After participating in a charity run in 2016 for one provincial hospital, he decided he could do even more, and announced his cross-country run.

“I am not a professional athlete. I am just a singer who loves to run. But after the 2016 run turned out a success, several hospitals contacted me. So, I planned to do this cross-country run,” Artiwara said. “If you hold a concert to raise funds, you will have to cover many expenses and in the end hospitals may not receive much.”

The 11 state hospitals that received the funds were: Saraburi Hospital, Surat Thani Hospital, Khon Kaen Hospital, Chaophraya Yommaraj Hospital, Nakornping Hospital, Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital, Chaopraya Abhaiphubejhr Hospital, Ratchaburi Hospital, Nan Hospital, Phramongkutklao Hospital and Yala Hospital.