Sri Lanka faces critical doctor shortage as economic crisis drives 25% to leave

Health service - Doctor

(Photo by Sasun Bughdaryan on Unsplash)

Sri Lanka’s largest trade union for government doctors has raised alarms about a significant brain drain due to the economic crisis, with 25 percent of doctors having already taken exams to work abroad, Arab News reports.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in 2021, about 200 doctors left the country annually, according to the Ministry of Health. However, since the country’s foreign debt default in early 2022, these numbers have surged. Power cuts, shortages of essentials, and 50 percent annual inflation have driven this exodus.

Dr. Chamil Wijesinghe, spokesperson for the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), told Arab News that more than 1,800 doctors left Sri Lanka in 2022 and 2023. GMOA data indicates that at least 25 percent of doctors in the government health system have passed exams to work abroad.

Doctors seeking to practice in the UAE or Oman need to pass the Prometric Exam for GP Doctor, while those aiming for the UK must complete the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board’s exams. In Australia, they follow the Australian Medical Council’s examination process. Wijesinghe noted that nearly 5,000 doctors have passed these exams and are considering leaving Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s health system currently employs around 20,000 doctors. Wijesinghe warned that specialists, particularly in emergency medicine, anesthesia, pediatrics, psychiatry, neurology, and cardiac surgery, are increasingly among those leaving.

Sri Lankan doctors are required to undergo both local and international training before practicing as consultants. Despite their extensive training, they earn only between $170 and $720 per month, making them some of the most underpaid professionals relative to their experience.

In the last two years, many doctors who left for mandatory training in countries like the UK, Australia, or the US have chosen not to return, largely due to significantly higher salaries abroad. Wijesinghe highlighted that salaries in the Middle East are nearly ten times higher than in Sri Lanka, while in the UK and Australia, they can be 20 to 30 times higher. Additionally, better working conditions, living standards, and education opportunities for their children are major draws.

The majority of Sri Lankan doctors are migrating to Australia and the UK, often with their families. Wijesinghe estimates that nearly 400 specialists have left in the past two years, creating a “huge problem” for the Sri Lankan health sector. This brain drain has affected even the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo, forcing patients to travel great distances for surgeries.

The GMOA has suggested measures to mitigate the brain drain, but these involve financial incentives and salary restructuring, which the Ministry of Health finds challenging to implement immediately. Dr. Asela Gunawardena, director-general of health services, told Arab News that while increasing salaries is difficult as the country recovers from the economic crisis, efforts will be made to address doctors’ needs and encourage them to return.

Gunawardena also expressed hope that doctors would feel a sense of duty to return, noting, “Sri Lanka is the country which gave them free education from kindergarten to university. They have an obligation to help the country when in trouble.”