Revised Budget 2023 must address staff retention in healthcare, says think tank

PETALING JAYA: The Budget 2023 allocations for healthcare must address the problems faced by an overstretched and overworked public healthcare workforce, says a health think tank.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib said that any reduction in the revised Budget 2023 will show up in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases and the government's ability to provide quality care.

“We need to maintain and strengthen our investment in health, not reduce it,” he said in a statement on Saturday (Feb 4).

He also called for the formation of a multi-sectoral taskforce and the recruitment of overseas health staff to address issue related to manpower.

“The government needs to convene a multisectoral taskforce comprising other ministries and agencies to put together a national health workforce strategy, to listen to staff, look at these issues and to put together long term plans to address both recruitment and staff retention,” he said.

Azrul said that these agencies include the Public Service Department as well as the Ministries of Human Resource and Higher Education

He also said that it is important to improve the retention of staff already working in the service.

“It is critical to listen and take the views of the women and men who are our healthcare workers seriously. The government must make the formation of this taskforce a priority for its first 100 days. This is not business as usual or an old story,” he added.

Azrul then said that nurses, doctors, specialists, medical assistants are underpaid, overworked, overstretched, working in facilities which are increasingly congested with patients, and facing extremely difficult workplace conditions as described in the Auditor General’s 2019 report.

“The people who work on the frontlines of healthcare are our greatest asset and are key to delivering high-quality care. They have shown remarkable resilience and commitment. Yet, their concerns appear to not be taken seriously,” he said.

Azrul added that many recently-proposed solutions for the congestion in emergency and trauma departments are seen as stop-gap measures.

“Most have already been tried, tested and at times failed because they depend on having sufficient staff,” said Azrul.

He then added that that a vicious cycle is created when an excessive workload, burnout amidst widespread anxiety, trauma, and mental fatigue causes many staff to quit which in turn causes shortages that increase pressure on the remaining staff.

Azrul added that the emergency and trauma departments was already described as war zones even before the Covid-19 crisis.

“The pandemic has exacerbated these long-term issues, weakened parts of our healthcare system and caused permanent damage. In some hospitals today, people are waiting between 24 hours and several days for a bed,” Azrul said.

He added that there are healthcare workers who are still doing 30-hour shifts.

“Many - especially junior doctors, housemen or medical officers - return home physically and mentally wrecked and exhausted. Some have been involved in accidents and car crashes. Tragically, some have even lost their lives as a result,” he said.

He said some healthcare workers are already experiencing burnout and there are significant numbers who are either intending to leave or have already left.

“Some are leaving to work in other countries, or worse leaving medicine altogether This is a leaky bucket where water poured into the bucket is going out via holes in the bottom. The holes are growing bigger,” said Azrul.

“However, these measures alone may not suffice and it will also take time to come into effect. The Government will need to consider recruitment of healthcare staff from overseas to fill the immediate needs, especially in areas of specialised care,” he added.

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