The shortage of medical personnel is not a new issue; indeed the problem has been part of the public health system for decades. Yet, the matter was brought up again this week following a viral Facebook post by actress Noppasorn "Puimek" Veerayuthawilai, who graduated from the faculty of medicine at Rangsit University.
The young intern uploaded a selfie of herself crying after her shift, posting on Facebook her complaint about the gruelling workload. She said in an interview that after six years of hard study, she thought she would fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor. But after a short time in the government health service, she quit.
It is an open secret that medical personnel and interns working at state hospitals work very long hours, sometimes over 12 hours or more per day. According to statistics from the Public Health Ministry, medical personnel in at least nine hospitals work 64-hour weeks instead of the standard 48.
Nurse rotation is no better. The average working hours for a nurse at a state hospital are 80 per week.
The problem reflects the fundamental shortage of medical personnel. According to the health ministry, there is one doctor per 1,000 patients, while the ideal ratio should be three per 1,000 patients.
There are 60,000 medical doctors in Thailand, and less than half, or about 24,600 of them, are working at state hospitals countrywide to take care of 45 million people.
The ministry has acknowledged the shortage. Apart from constantly asking for more budget, it has introduced telemedicine to reduce the workload. Yet, the system is in its early stages, and the ministry must put all of its efforts into promoting it. Meanwhile, the ministry's long-term plan to decentralise medical services by developing local health volunteers is seemingly doing well.
Still, the system is far from sufficient to reduce the overcrowding at state hospitals.
In response to the news, Opas Karnkawinpong, the Public Health Ministry's permanent secretary, was quick in his attempts to allay public fears by saying the resignation rate of medical doctors is only about 2,000 annually or 10% of all state medical doctors.
The ministry, he said, is planning to ask for more budget to hire more medical personnel.
However, the problem is more than meets the eye, with critics, such as the Thai Frontline Physician Confederation, saying hiring more staff will not make the troubles go away.
Other problems need fixing, with one involving delays in salary payments. It is no secret that government interns' salaries are often delayed, and many state hospitals need budget advances or even loans to disburse pay. This problem must be fixed right away.
There are also work environment problems. Medical doctors and nurses transferred to remote provinces have complained about the quality of their housing and increased occupational risks, including lawsuits.
So far, the ministry budget allocation has been used to invest in hospital facilities and medical equipment. So, it is about time to spend the budget on improving the working conditions of our medical personnel to make them feel safe in their jobs and be proud to take care of people.