Daily Monitor yesterday revealed that the government is drawing plans to bring into the country 200 doctors from the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, and also hire retired personnel to fix the gaps in the health sector. The decision to staff the health sector is healthy, especially that the country, as of 2013, had a 1:24,725 doctor to patient ratio. The intention to also make the experts train and supervise intern doctors is very much welcome.
However, we think the government is looking thousands of kilometres away for solutions that are within a spitting distance. For instance, let us look at the issue of brain drain and its causes. In May last year, the former chairman of Health committee in the 9th Parliament, Dr Medard Bitekyerezo, said more than 240 specialist doctors had left Uganda over five years due to poor pay and bad working environment.
"A specialist of my calibre earns about Shs10m in Kenya and in Tanzania about Shs7m. This money and other allowances, although not enough, enable them to go to work in other countries as opposed to Uganda where they are not paid enough to enable them sustain their families," said Dr Bitekyerezo, himself a specialist physician.
According to Dr Bitekyerezo, some of the specialists who left include 11 anesthesiologists, five ENT Surgeons, 183 general practitioners, five neurosurgeons, 10 obstetricians, five ophthalmologists, two urologists, one dental surgeon and one orthopedic surgeon.
Later in July, the Uganda Medical Association (UMA) petitioned Parliament over the brain drain of health workers. The then UMA deputy president, Dr Chris Oundo, told MPs that out of the 5,000 qualified doctors, only 1,200 work in the public sector, and the rest were abroad, seeking well paying jobs.
The issue of brain drain also brings to the fore how government has flip-flopped on the issue of medical workers. In 2015, a public outcry forced the government to drop plans to export 283 health workers to Trinidad and Tobago. We then ask, does the government have a clear vision for the health sector? Such a critical industry must not be handled so casually.
The plan to import Cuban doctors, coming amidst a doctors and impending nurses' strike over poor pay and welfare, also raises eyebrows on what plans the government has for the health sector. The money government intends to use to facilitate these experts could go into improving the conditions of our personnel and check brain drain - and hopefully the staffing gaps.