Emirati doctors often face a difficult dilemma: should they train in the UAE and face a long climb up the career ladder, go abroad to work, or do something else in this country, such as an administrative job that allows them to get paid more and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle? Mohamed Alseiari, an Emirati research associate at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, told me he had faced this same conundrum.
The demand for health care has been soaring in recent years. The UAE’s health sector now has world-class facilities, technologies and expertise coming to this country. But one thing is still lacking: home-grown health specialists.
Last week, experts at the Arab Health Congress called the issue a “worrying problem” that needs to be addressed before the imbalance grows even more.
But looking at the number of graduates from the UAE University, the only public medical school in the country, there doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Since 1993, 534 medical students have graduated from the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at the university. Of those, two-thirds are female, according to the university’s website.
This means that 27 doctors have graduated every year during the past two decades. There are also those who go to private colleges inside the country or study abroad at their own expense or with assistance from government grants.
Where do all these graduates go? To find the answer to this question, we need to understand the reasons why Emiratis shy away from a career in medicine.
All the doctors I have talked to gave almost the same answers: relatively low income, lack of benefits and promotions, inadequate specialisation and training opportunities inside the country.
Dr Alseiari, 34, who has been in the United States for the past five years, and who is on study leave from his job as a physician with the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha), said that many graduates give up posts as physicians within two years of practice and move on to seek positions in other industries that bring them better benefits.
Because of a very real shortage of opportunities for specialisation here, these doctors often have no choice but to go abroad.
Some women also drop out due to cultural restraints, especially those who are married with children and who are not able to cope with the lifestyle of extended working hours, on weekends and holidays, according to Dr Alseiari.
“Most graduates are female and most won’t consider going abroad for training, so the need for local training is important,” said Fatima Al Dhaheri, a physician from Al Ain, who moved to work as a teaching assistant in the Department of Paediatric Medicine at UAE University.
Dr Adil Sajwani, who works with the Ministry of Health at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah, described the current local specialisation programmes as “average”, saying that they require self-study and self- development.
He wanted to specialise in ophthalmology but that programme is not offered by the Ministry of Health, so he had to change his plans and join the Family Medicine Specialisation Programme.
Now in his final year, he is planning to study health care administration and move into management. The country does not have a UAE board for specialisation and depends mostly on the Arab board, he said, which has not been designed to meet local standards here.
Like Dr Alseiari, Dr Sajwani identified low-income as one of the major obstacles facing Emirati doctors. He initially worked in Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi and found it difficult.
“Life in Abu Dhabi with Dh15,000 was so hard. No accommodation was given to us,” he said.
“I managed to stay there for a year then I decided to quit the programme and come back to Sharjah.”
“Compared to neighbouring countries, UAE physicians are blessed with better salaries,” Dr Alseiari said, “but take into consideration the number of working hours, the extensive training, the calls and liabilities, all of these make the medical profession less appealing.”
He said that his salary has increased by only around 10 per cent in the past seven years, while his friends who work in other professions have seen their salaries increase by 75 per cent over the same period.
There is, however, some optimism after the Government’s recent brainstorming session regarding the health care sector and the decisions that came out of it.
Dr Tariq Alawadhi, 26, a general dental practitioner, said that one of the most important outcomes was the unification of the medical licences between the Health Authority Abu Dhabi, Dubai Health Authority and the Ministry of Health.
But there is still much to be done to support medical students both financially and technically in the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui