Health sector woes need emergency treatment

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Saying Sri Lanka’s health sector is in crisis would be an understatement. It is not only the shortage of medicines and other facilities that are affecting the sector but a growing shortage in the number of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel who are finding work overseas where their skills are much sought after. 

Most affluent countries in the West are facing a shortage of medical personnel and particularly caregivers which has made them turn to lower income countries to fill the required vacancies and many Sri Lankans with the requisite qualifications are taking up these offers.

This has badly impacted the State health system with the growing dearth of doctors and specialists putting lives of patients at risk.

The scale of the problem was highlighted recently by Dr. Ashoka Gunaratne of the Specialist Doctors’ Association who said the country would require at least 4,000 specialist doctors by 2024/2025 but at present there are only around 2,000 with the number likely to decline further as some of them are looking to migrate.

Paediatric hospitals are among the worst hit with only one specialist in Paediatric Radiology in the country, he said, a troubling disclosure given that many children will go without full and proper access to medical treatment if they fall ill.

Adding to this is the news that a sizable number of medical graduates have chosen not to take up appointments in State hospitals after completing their internships and are choosing to go overseas.

NPP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa recently gave details of the extent of the exodus of doctors from the country saying that of around 18,000 doctors in the country, 1,500 to 1,700 medical doctors have left their jobs in recent months. Added to that, around 300 out of 1,400 medical graduates who had completed the internship in April this year, have not obtained their appointments as doctors.

It is amidst this that the Government has agreed to increase the retirement age of consultant specialists from 60 to 63 after a case was filed by a group of specialists challenging a cabinet decision taken in October 2022 to reduce their retirement age from 63 to 60. 

Given all the problems that the health sector is facing at present, it can ill afford to lose any more doctors and other health sector workers as millions who depend on the country’s free health service will suffer. Given the shortages of medicine as well as proper equipment in Government hospitals, calling it “free” health service itself is ironic given that patients are expected to get medical tests done at private facilities, buy their medicines from private pharmacies, etc. but at least they are spared the expense of having to channel doctors in private hospitals and pay for that too.

Which is why there should be intervention at the highest level to matters concerning the welfare of those who work in the health sector.

Not so long ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, it was the doctors, nurses, attendants and all those attached to the health sector who put their lives on the line to ensure the best possible care for all Sri Lankans. Those in the health sector had to make many personal sacrifices, isolating themselves from their own family for long periods of time, to serve the public.

Like with most other things, the Government and the public too have largely forgotten that period when those in the health sector were their only saviours whose efforts helped to keep COVID-related deaths to a minimum and helped carry out a successful vaccination program while ensuring the primary healthcare system did not collapse. Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose any more of its medical personnel than it already has and it’s the Government’s responsibility to ensure that their grievances are addressed in a reasonable manner through discussions. The Government should also ensure that a substantial amount of funds is allocated for the health services come the next Budget in November.

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Disclaimer: Health sector woes need emergency treatment - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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