Medical brain drain worsens in Sri Lanka as 25% of doctors ready to migrate

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s largest government doctors’ union warned on Friday of a wave of brain drain among medical workers caused by the economic crisis, as 25 percent of them had already taken the necessary exams for employment abroad.

Before the worst economic crisis hit Sri Lanka after the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, an average of 200 doctors would have migrated to work in another country, according to Ministry of Health statistics.

That number has increased since the beginning of 2022, when the country defaulted on its foreign debt. Sri Lankans began experiencing power outages and shortages of essentials such as fuel, food and medicine, and the inflation rate rose to 50 percent per year.

“If we consider the situation in the last two years, more than 1,800 doctors have left the country in 2022 and 2023,” Dr. Chamil Wijesinghe, spokesman for the Government Medical Officers Association, told Arab News.

Many others are likely to follow in their footsteps as GMOA data shows that at least 25 percent of doctors currently working in the state health system have already passed the necessary exams to find work abroad.

In order to practice medicine in the UAE or Oman, doctors must pass the general practice exam. To work in the UK, they are required to sit the Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board exams, while in Australia they have to sit the Medical Council of Australia exam.

“Considering just those three … recent statistics show that almost 5,000 Sri Lankan doctors have completed these exams and are waiting to make a decision to leave the country,” Wijesinghe said.

“In Sri Lanka’s public health institutions … there are about 20,000 doctors.

He warned that an increasing number of those leaving are specialists, mainly emergency medicine and anesthesia, followed by pediatricians, psychiatrists, neurologists and cardiac surgeons.

Some of the most rigorously trained doctors in Sri Lanka are required by their country’s health system to undergo local and international training before becoming consultants. At the same time, and compared to years of experience, they are among the lowest paid, earning between $170 and $720 per month.

In the past two years, those who went for compulsory training in countries such as Great Britain, Australia or the USA, are not willing to return.

“The high wages they get in those countries, compared to Sri Lanka, is the main reason. If you consider Middle Eastern countries, it is almost ten times the salary they get in Sri Lanka. In the UK and Australia, about 20 to 30 times,” Wijesinghe said, adding that they are attracted by better working environments, better living standards and educational opportunities for their children.

“Most doctors from Sri Lanka migrate to Australia and the United Kingdom… They also migrate with their family members.

He estimated that nearly 400 specialists had left in the past two years, which was becoming a “big problem” for Sri Lanka’s health sector.

“It has affected from the largest hospital in Sri Lanka, the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, which is in Colombo, to the rural hospital system… Patients sometimes have to travel hundreds of kilometers to have their operations,” he said.

“The brain drain of professionals and intellectuals from this country has affected many sectors, but it is a well-known fact that healthcare is the hardest hit.”

GMOA has proposed ways to mitigate the brain drain of doctors to the Sri Lankan government, but as solutions include financial incentives and restructuring of the salary system, the Ministry of Health does not expect this to happen immediately.

“Increasing salaries is really difficult at the moment because the country is still recovering from the economic crisis,” Dr. Asela Gunawardena, director general of the ministry’s health services, told Arab News.

“However, we will do our best to respond to their needs to attract them to return to their country and work for the nation.”

He also hoped that a sense of duty would help them return home as well.

“Sri Lanka is a country that has given them free education from kindergarten to university,” he said. “They have an obligation to help the country when they are in trouble.”

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