Dr. Stephen Mercado has a general practice in an Eastern Philippine province. He's also studying to be a nurse, wants to go to the States, and perhaps, practice medicine. "I can work as a nurse there," he says. "The pay is good, better, maybe better than a doctor."
Filipino physicians have been migrating to the United States since the 1960's and 1970's, but the more recent outflow is disturbing. According to one study, they no longer leave as medical doctors, but as nurses. The research paper by former Philippine Secretary of Health Dr. Jaime-Galvez Tan says that three years ago, around 5,000 doctors became nurses.
"My latest study is showing that it is increasing numbers and now there are 9,000 doctors who have become nurses. Six thousand of them have left the Philippines mainly for the U.S. To work as nurses," he says.
The health care system is feeling the effects. At one of the biggest hospitals in Manila, Assistant Director Dr. Emmanuel Montana said that last year, they had 152 interns. "Now we only have five," says Montana. The number of resident doctors at the hospital has also dwindled. According to Montana, "The other year, we had 300 residents, now we only have 166."
Even training hospitals have been affected because of doctors switching careers. "Doctors no longer want to train as a resident or to become a specialist, but they'd rather take nursing as a specialty and then move to the U.S.," says Dr. Jaime-Galvez Tan.
It is in the countryside where the exodus of doctors seems to weigh heavily. An old public health clinic serves more than 150,000 residents. There is only one doctor, Lurinio Villanueva, who struggles to attend to the people, most of them poor, who flock to the clinic everyday.
"We lack doctors, that is the situation as of now," says Villanueva.
A clinic in another rural town has a doctor, but only once a week. It's a health center far luckier than numerous other such facilities in the country that don't have a single doctor at all.
"In my study, 80% of government doctors particularly public health physicians, are the ones who have become nurses... and therefore, have left," says Dr. Jaime-Galvez Tan.
Attracted by higher salaries and tired of the political instability, doctors continue to leave the Philippines. Their colleagues at home say this migration puss the medical profession under severe threat of decimation.
By Gaby Tabunar