ABU DHABI // Abu Dhabi needs to recruit about 1,500 doctors a year to cope with a growing population and staff turnover.
But health professionals say recruitment is being hampered by bureaucratic delays in licensing new staff.
"There is a shortage, but not a shortage on the recruitment side," Dr Sami Alom, chief strategy officer at Al Noor Hospital, said yesterday.
"We find plenty of doctors willing to come to Al Noor, to Abu Dhabi, but then we are unable to get them licensed." The process takes too long, he said.
A new system introduced this month that will automatically renew licensed doctors' permits is a step in the right direction but other gaps need to be addressed, said Dr Alom.
"The problem with a shortage is it impacts three things; the quality of care, because we cannot improve our quality; it impacts access, meaning the amount of time the patient has to wait to see a doctor; and it impacts cost."
New figures from the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi show the number of doctors employed between 2010 and 2011 increased by only 143, bringing the total to 4,900.
Abu Dhabi's population increased from 2,321,003 to 2,422,400 in the same period. At that rate of growth the authority estimates 3,200 more doctors will be required by 2021, meaning annual recruitment of about 1,500, taking into account turnover of staff.
With demand for doctors outweighing supply, some hospitals and clinics could be forced into paying higher wages than necessary, Dr Alom said.
"You create artificial inflation of wages. They [doctors] can dictate wages."
Staffing shortages have decreased in the 26 years Gulnaz Tariq, unit manager for wound care at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, has worked in Abu Dhabi, but there are still obvious gaps.
Some of these could be addressed by hiring more Emiratis, she said.
"We need to get more Emirati nurses. We need to educate them and make them more aware that it is a noble profession. They are the ones who will take care of the country eventually."
The health authority's report showed that the number of new nurses hired rose from 8,221 in 2010 to 10,504 in 2011, and that up to 5,900 extra nurses will be needed by 2021.
Areas in which capacity gaps were recorded included intensive and critical care medicine, neonatal intensive care units, emergency care, cardiology and psychiatry.
Although staffing increased across neonatology, cardiology and psychiatry, the number of physicians working in intensive and critical-care medicine and emergency care dropped.
A breakdown of figures was unavailable.
The shortage of professionals can be partly attributed to problems with the organisation of the health system in Abu Dhabi, said Dr Ruth Firmalino, a private general practitioner.
"In Abu Dhabi the field of medicine is still young, in my opinion, and it needs a lot of specialists to come into the field. But the system is not organised."
Dr Firmalino is able to manage her workload efficiently, and treats between 15 and 25 patients a day. Her clinic operates an appointment-only system for most patients, allowing staff to cope with the demand.
But the same cannot be said at other clinics, according to Dr Ali Al Metwally, a family physician at Zafaraneh Clinic Family Centre.
On average, Dr Al Metwally sees 24 to 30 patients a day, limiting the time he can spend with each person. A daily stream of 15 or 16 patients would be more appropriate, he said.
"For the number of patients, it's too much for each doctor."
But it is challenging to recruit more staff because of the local licensing requirements, he said.
"This is the problem of licensing. It's difficult."
Dr Alom welcomed the new system of renewing licences automatically. "That's a positive step," he said. "Now we're hoping a solution can be found to license new doctors more quickly and efficiently."