DOH Secretary: Philippines lacks 15,000 doctors

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Philippines is short of 15,000 doctors to be able to adequately meet the health needs of Filipinos each year, the Health Secretary said Wednesday.

"We're producing only 2,600 a year," Department of Health Secretary Paulyn Rosell-Ubial told CNN Philippines' The Source.

Ubial, who traveled with her team to Cuba in August to observe that country's excellent health care system, pointed out that Cuba had a ratio of one doctor for every 1,075 patients.

The Philippines has a ratio of one doctor for every 33,000 persons, she said.

The Health Secretary said there's a lack of volunteers willing to go to rural areas. The Doctors to the Barrios program, which sends doctors to far-flung areas, can accommodate 398 doctors. However, 116 posts remain vacant.

To attract more doctors to the program, they have boosted the monthly salary to ₱56,000 ($1,170).

"The salary is very good, around ₱56,000 a month and benefits are also commensurate," Ubial said. "One other thing that we're trying to do is the PhilHealth reimbursement; if you work in a rural area, your reimbursement is higher," she added.

ming the health care system

The Philippines needs to "change the paradigm in our school system" to attract more aspiring doctors. "Right now, it's very difficult to go into medicine. But in Cuba, I think they have only six years of medical education," Ubial said.

It takes over eight years for a medical student to finish studies in the Philippines. The cost of education can be high, which prompts medical school graduates and new doctors to join private hospitals which offer higher pay to be able to recoup their investment.

Ubial is also eyeing looking for medical school candidates from different sectors such as indigenous peoples, scholars from far-flung communities in the country to help meet the shortfall. "These are the doctors that will eventually go back to those communities," she added.

CNN Philippines' MedTalk host Dr. Freddie Gomez said that despite the shortage, we can be proud of the people working in the health sector.

"The nurses here are excellent nurses but the attraction for them to stay here is sort of lacking," said Gomez, who joined Ubial in the interview. "Hopefully, with the current packages for health care, we'll see the great doctors and nurses stay here in the Philippines."

Ubial also said that they are considering deploying "undercover" patients to check DOH facilities. "We're mapping out the plan to see the health system with ghost patients," she said. "(That includes) giving them a checklist (of) what they should observe in the health facility, actually rating (it), and giving them feedback on what (they) saw."

However, the health officials believe that the biggest challenge in Philippine health care is fragmentation and disparity in the quality of health care services. "You have the private sector that usually takes care of the rich and the public sector that usually takes care of the poor…then down the line you have different local government units," said Ubial. "For public hospitals, it's under the government. For the rural health units and barangay health section, it's under the mayor," she added.

In August, Senator Antonio Trillanes filed Senate Bill 526, which sought the increase of government physicians' pay to no lower than ₱57,000 per month. The minimum salary of government doctors now stands at ₱28,417.00 a month.