NewsSri Lanka's Healthcare System in Crisis as Exodus of Doctors Raises Alarms

Sri Lanka’s Healthcare System in Crisis as Exodus of Doctors Raises Alarms

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In a concerning development, Sri Lanka’s once robust healthcare system is facing a severe crisis, grappling with the departure of over 1,700 medical officers, including doctors and other healthcare professionals, in the last two years. The alarming exodus has raised questions about the government’s role in addressing the talent drain, as patients experience extended waiting times and a diminishing quality of care.

Data exclusively obtained by Context from the Government Medical Officers’ Association trade union reveals a stark increase from approximately 200 departures in 2021 to the current exodus, significantly impacting the nation’s universally acclaimed health system, upon which a majority of the 22 million population relies.

Individuals like Srimal Nalaka, 47, awaiting his monthly diabetes checkup at a state-run hospital in Colombo, express the growing concern over the lack of medical professionals. “The economic crisis has hit us all, but for those of us with health issues, the impact is even more severe,” Nalaka laments.

The situation may worsen, as a health ministry report, exclusively shared with Context, discloses that 4,284 doctors have obtained “Good Standing” certificates between June 2022 and July 2023, potentially indicating a further exodus. Moreover, over 5,000 doctors have acquired medical licenses from foreign countries, and a similar number have reserved slots for foreign licensing exams in the coming years.

The financial crisis, coupled with a dwindling economy, has led to over two million Sri Lankans leaving the country since 2022. Despite economic recovery attempts, the healthcare system is struggling, marked by extended waiting lists and inadequate access to quality treatment and medicines. With only 1.2 doctors per 1,000 people, as per 2021 World Bank data, the strain on the system is evident.

Chamil Wijesinghe, a spokesman for the Government Medical Officers’ Association, emphasizes the urgency for the government to take decisive action. “We are urging the president and the government to take greater responsibility for the lives of innocent citizens. Urgent measures and policies are needed to retain the existing doctors,” Wijesinghe asserts, expressing frustration at what he perceives as governmental inaction.

Despite President Ranil Wickremesinghe proposing compensation from countries recruiting Sri Lankan doctors, there has been little progress on this front. Efforts to address staff shortages, such as reversing the retirement age reduction and increasing allowances, have faced challenges, leading to strikes and discontent among healthcare workers.

The issue of retaining skilled medical professionals is not unique to Sri Lanka, echoing challenges faced by African countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe. With publicly funded medical studies taking seven years to become a medical officer and up to 15 years to train as a specialist doctor, efforts to make the profession more attractive are imperative.

While the government grapples with diplomatic considerations, low-income households bear the brunt, unable to afford private care or increasingly expensive medicines. The long-term consequences are not limited to immediate healthcare challenges; there are concerns about the impact on education as well, with fewer doctors participating in postgraduate training examinations, potentially resulting in a shortage of consultants in the future.

As the brain drain intensifies, experts stress the need for comprehensive solutions that address the root causes, with Sirimal Abeyratne, head of the department of economics at the University of Colombo, cautioning that there is no quick fix to the brain drain issue and its disproportionate effects on the poorest. The call for sustainable solutions echoes the sentiments of individuals like Nalaka, who implore doctors to give their country a second chance. “We need solutions that keep our doctors here, caring for us at home,” Nalaka emphasizes, encapsulating the collective plea of a nation facing a healthcare crisis.

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