ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49

Double degrees, dollars for docs

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Dhananjani Silva

Sri Lanka, mainly known for the export of unskilled labour, will venture into hitherto uncharted territory with plans underway to send out skilled or professional labour in the form of medical officers.

A Foreign Placement Coordinating Centre (FPCC) for medical officers has already been established at the National Hospital in Colombo, with its website being launched yesterday.

The FPCC will coordinate overseas placements without disrupting the local healthcare system, says its Coordinator Dr. Kremlin Wickramasinghe, explaining that the focus groups will be doctors who have qualified to be consultants but need a mandatory two or three year training at a centre of excellence abroad and also junior medical officers.

“In Sri Lanka, once you have passed the examination held by the Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM), if you Continued wish to become a consultant, you have to go abroad to get the necessary training before you get board certification which enables you to practise as a consultant. However, currently it is upto the individual doctor to find his own placement abroad,” he says.This is where the FPCC will come in, after the collection of information from centres of excellence worldwide and the CVs of those wishing to go abroad, it is learnt.

It will match-make, but “will not be the selection body,” says Dr. Wickramasinghe, adding that they will then forward all CVs to the foreign centres which in turn will make their pick.

To ensure that the potential consultants return after their stint, they will have to sign a bond with two guarantors, it is understood. Stressing that the “focal point” in the expansion of healthcare units in the country is the consultant, he says that although there are around 10,000-12,000 doctors in the state sector, only about 1,000 are consultants. “Yet there is no programme by the government to meet this requirement and there is a delay in doctors becoming consultants.”

The other category will be medical officers who will be sent for jobs abroad for a limited time period on no-pay leave, after some training by the PGIM, according to the needs of the foreign employer, Dr. Wickramasinghe says.

The Health Ministry has brought up the issue of unemployment of doctors after 2010 and the FPCC can address this by finding foreign placements for doctors, while continuing to absorb newly-passing out medical graduates into the healthcare system, he says.

Explaining how it all started, Dr. Wickramasinghe says a few years ago, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) came up with the concept of professional labour exportation. GMOA Secretary Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya had proposed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa that sending doctors for foreign placement would be a good way to get foreign exchange to the country. The President then requested Health Ministry Secretary Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage and Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundara to coordinate and implement this programme.

This was in view of the fact that though foreign employment is the second largest foreign exchange earner, and around 60-70% of this income comes from unskilled labour while professionals contribute mainly to brain-drain and are “never-returners”, The Sunday Times undersatnds.

The GMOA concept was accepted as a National Policy and spelt out in the Budget speech of 2007. Under the directions given by the Presidential Secretariat, the GMOA, along with the Health Ministry and the PGIM joined hands to implement this concept. Establishment of the FPCC and the Language Centre were the two arms of the implementation strategy.

The Language Laboratory will help medical officers preparing for IELTS and other examinations that test English as a foreign language. According to Dr. Wickramasinghe some indirect benefits of the programme will be the further improvement of Sri Lanka’s medical training programmes due to collaboration with overseas centres and revenue generation through ethical research and collaboration.

Meanwhile, medical officers trained abroad under this programme could also contribute to the development of ‘health tourism’, as yet unexplored in Sri Lanka.“With our good healthcare system and medical expertise we can encourage foreigners to come to the country for their medical treatment,” says Dr. Wickramasinghe.

The Steering Committee spearheading this programme comprises representatives from a wide range of organizations, including the Foreign Ministry, Labour Ministry, Foreign Employment Bureau and the UGC, in addition to those initially involved.

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