The current patient doctor ratio for PNG is 20,000:1. That’s right, 20,000 patients to one doctor! What a nightmare for a medical officer working in a country with this kind of patient doctor ratio.
Recently the PNG government announced that they were going to recruit doctors from Cuba to work in PNG. While they have their own reasons and indeed the health minister admitted that it is a short term solution to the doctor shortage in Papua New Guinea, I do not think it will improve health services to rural areas.
Firstly the number of doctors graduating from the UPNG medical school needs to be increased.
Apart from the financial incentives that are being offered by some hospitals in PNG to attract doctors, there are other factors that also need to be addressed. The hospital infrastructure needs to be improved and maintained at a standard that a doctor will work with the necessary support services (eg minimum standards for laboratory tests). Things like drugs (including gases) also need to be available on time.
Continuing medical education and professional development for doctors also need to be addressed. For example, how will doctors working in provincial hospitals keep abreast with developments in general medicine and their field of interest? This means hospitals need to have a good library with journals or books. If they can not, the least that they can do is have an Internet connection in the hospitals for doctors and others to make use of the wide literature available on the web. The development of Internet technology and communication system in PNG has a direct effect on the delivery of health services, especially in rural areas where we are struggling to attract medical officers. I consider this as a very vital part of attracting doctors to rural areas apart from the financial incentives that most people seem to talk about.
Another thing is PNG doctors are moving overseas. I believe this will continue to happen. But more importantly I think the migration of PNG doctors to work overseas should be viewed positively. After gaining the necessary experience, many will return to impart what they have learnt to young doctors in PNG. Financial remittance to family members back in PNG is another gain. There are many factors affecting the movement of PNG doctors going overseas. Instead of criticising the movement of PNG doctors overseas with a negative view, we should look at ways how our overall system can be improved.
With the signing of the new contract between the National Deparment of Health of PNG and the National Doctors Association, more doctors are expected to return to the public health service. Several of my friends also share the share view and they are thinking of going back to public service from private or from overseas.
But with the history of the Department of Health in implementing changes, I wait to see the outcome.