NewsHealthcare System in Sri Lanka Crumbles as Economic Crisis Forces Doctors Abroad

Healthcare System in Sri Lanka Crumbles as Economic Crisis Forces Doctors Abroad

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COLOMBO – Sri Lanka, once heralded for its robust healthcare system, is grappling with a severe downturn as hundreds of doctors flee the country, exacerbating the impact of the economic crisis and leaving low-income patients particularly vulnerable. Data exclusively shared with Context by the Government Medical Officers’ Association reveals that over 1,700 medical officers, including doctors and healthcare professionals, have left the nation over the past two years, dealing a significant blow to the country’s much-lauded universal health system.

The exodus represents a substantial increase compared to the approximately 200 departures recorded in 2021. As a result, the healthcare system, upon which most of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people depend, is now strained, with longer waiting times and reduced access to quality treatment.

The economic crisis, triggered by the country’s default on its debt in 2022, has led to a broader exodus, with over two million Sri Lankans leaving to work or study abroad. While the economy shows signs of recovery, the healthcare system lags, with a critical shortage of medical professionals – 1.2 doctors per 1,000 people, as per World Bank data from 2021.

A health ministry report, exclusively obtained by Context, indicates that an additional 4,284 doctors are contemplating leaving, having obtained “Good Standing” certificates from the Medical Council. Moreover, over 5,000 doctors have acquired medical licenses from countries such as Britain, Australia, and the Middle East, indicating a looming crisis in retaining medical talent.

Chamil Wijesinghe, a spokesperson for the Government Medical Officers’ Association, emphasizes the urgent need for government intervention to address the crisis. Despite mounting concerns, the federal health ministry has not responded to requests for comment on the matter.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suggested seeking compensation from countries recruiting Sri Lankan doctors and raised the issue with the World Health Organization. However, progress on this front remains unclear, with officials citing the need for careful consideration and diplomacy.

Efforts to retain medical professionals include reversing a retirement age reduction order for public employees and doubling allowances for doctors, which triggered a strike in February. However, these measures have yet to address the root causes of the issue, including low salaries and inadequate facilities.

The healthcare crisis disproportionately affects low-income households, unable to afford private care or increasingly expensive medicines. The brain drain also poses a long-term threat to education, with fewer skilled healthcare workers available for mentoring and training medical students.

Sirimal Abeyratne, the head of the department of economics at the University of Colombo, acknowledges the complexity of the issue, highlighting that immediate policy changes cannot rectify the brain drain. Calls for comprehensive solutions persist to keep doctors in Sri Lanka, ensuring essential healthcare for all citizens.

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