Migrating doctors and the public’s dilemma

Saturday, 9 September 2023 00:01 –      – 28

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The Government is turning the heat up on migrating doctors, with some advocating legal action against those leaving. It is estimated that around 700 doctors have left the country in 2022 and this trend has continued into 2023. Some have left the country using the officially sanctioned procedure for State sector employees while some have left without giving prior notice to the Health Ministry and are thus treated as having vacated their posts.

State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya disclosed this week that taxpayer’s money to the tune of around Rs. 4 million is spent per medical student in State sector universities which is an average of Rs. 68,215 per month. This is more than double the amount spent on students studying engineering, management and the arts.

Though people from all sectors have chosen to seek better prospects overseas in the current economic climate, the departure of doctors is drawing more attention than those from other fields who are migrating. The reason is obvious. The majority of the country’s population depend on State-run medical facilities as they are unable to afford the exorbitant rates charged by private hospitals. The backbone of the State health sector are doctors, who, ably assisted by nurses, technical staff and others, give the best possible service to the public. It is due to their hard work and sacrifices that the country for years was held up as an example to many countries in the world for its successful vaccination programs, infant and maternal health programs, and many others. The successful COVID-19 preventive programs too shone the light on the success of the free healthcare system.

But all that changed with the onset of the economic crisis with the health sector falling apart with not only medicine shortages but a lack of vital medical specialists. Recently the only consultant anaesthetist at the Embilipitiya District General Hospital left the country bringing all surgeries at the hospital to a halt. Similar reports from other hospitals too are growing in number.

Whatever politicians may have to say, those who seek to migrate have the right to do so. Those working for the State sector such as doctors are bound by contracts/bonds, but they too can leave after getting necessary authorisation and paying the bond money.

However, there is an ethical and moral question that can be asked from those who choose to seek greener pastures at a time when the country needs them the most. The one-time President of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, a strong proponent of a shift to organic farming during former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure and one advocating of the Rajapaksa band of patriotism is among like-minded doctors who have fallen off the radar since the economic woes set in. Their misguided priorities were a contributory factor to the current economic crises, but the public are yet to hear a word from them urging their departing colleagues to reconsider their decision and serve the country when their expertise is needed desperately. The Health Ministry on its part too has failed to come up with a cohesive policy of engagement with the medical officers so as to encourage them to stay back.

This trend of migrating doctors puts the people of the country in a dilemma but has little impact on politicians. Sri Lankan politicians are notorious for seeking treatment overseas without relying on local doctors for medical care and hence they are not personally affected by shortage of medical staff. But for the public of this country who depend on the doctor in the Government hospital for treatment, they have no such luxurious options. It is they who will continue to pay a high price for bungling by politicians and the shortage of doctors.