Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Healthcare Systems Under Review

Healthcare Systems Under Review

Saturday, 11 April, 2020 - 08:30
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.

As part of the battle against the coronavirus (COVID-19), health authorities in the UK have urged the government to accelerate the process for granting visas to foreign doctors. They also called on retired medics to return to work in hospitals.

The UK is not the only country competing for the services of foreign medical professionals with vital specialist knowledge by offering them residence and work permits. In fact, it already has thousands of immigrants working in its health services, including more than 4,000 Iraqi doctors.

The first doctor in Britain to die on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis was a Pakistani father of four. All of his children are also doctors, as is his wife.

Given the threat the pandemic poses to the world, there are renewed discussions and debates in many nations about the state of healthcare systems, shortages of medical staff, the standards of health institutions, and the quality of the services they provide. People are asking whether their health services are self-sufficient and the sector is adequately developed.

Let us take Saudi Arabia as a regional model. The country has a good health service, which is ranked 26th on a global list by the World Health Organization. There are about 100,000 practicing doctors in the country but only a quarter of them are Saudis. This is despite major scholarship programs to send Saudi medical students to study in the West, and 37 medical colleges in the Kingdom with 25,000 students.

Why, then, are there so few Saudi doctors? It is because studying medicine takes a long time, costs a lot and has very high educational requirements. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that opportunities to study at Western universities are limited by a system of codifying the places reserved for international students, and as a result the system provides few seats for Saudi students.

Complementary medical professions, such as nursing, are no less important. There are about 185,000 nurses in the Kingdom, a third of whom are Saudis. There are also technical and administrative specialties in the health sector.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, everyone understood that medicine is one of the noblest professions, and that the quality of healthcare provision is a reflection of the progress and status of a nation. One of the lessons we must learn from the current crisis is the need to emphasize the importance of, and increase the interest in, developing curative services, while also enhancing awareness of health-related issues in our communities.

This is a global issue and not a problem faced only by developing nations. Although governments consider the cost of providing healthcare to be high, and often seek to privatize and commercialize medical services, they must be held to account when services are not adequate, they must be compelled to contribute more to them when required, and they must be reminded that they are not exempt from the responsibilities of safeguarding public health.

Neglecting or failing to support this vital sector is costly and dangerous. Ill-prepared governments around the world that are battling to slow the spread of coronavirus have suddenly found themselves forced to spend large sums of money on preventative measures, laboratory tests, treating the infected and purchasing vital medical equipment that is in short supply.

The truth is that money alone cannot alleviate the danger posed by the virus and limit its repercussions when there are not enough specialists, health practitioners, hospital beds, respirators, medical masks and protective clothing.

Much has been said and written in honor and praise of healthcare professionals all over the world, highlighting the risks they face and thanking them for the sacrifices they are making every single day — in some cases giving their lives to help others. No amount of words will ever be enough to express the debt of gratitude we owe them.

Medicine is a vital profession but it is not accessible to everyone. The cost of teaching and training physicians is high, exceeding $2.5 million for each medical student. It takes more than 11 years of study and training to reach advanced levels of qualification.

Action is needed, therefore, to reduce the burdens on our doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, and cut the costs of providing care. More consistent, constant monitoring of individuals’ health, for example, along with enhanced initiatives to raise awareness of health issues and the importance of early treatment, including improved health education for children at an early age.

Measures such as these, and others, can create a healthier community that requires fewer visits to the doctor, reducing the financial burden of providing a quality healthcare system.

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