Hospitals under pressure as doctors move abroad

Dr Muhammad Abdel-Sattar, 36, is packing his bags as he discusses on the phone with two colleagues the best time to leave for the airport.

In December 2006 Abdel-Sattar sent his family to Jordan after three times receiving threats from militants. Recently his car was shot at in front of his house, and he has now decided to leave the country - and his job as a leading oncologist in Baghdad.

“I love my country and would like to stay to help my people but… I’m scared that any time a militant will come and shoot me dead,” Abdel-Sattar said. “I’m leaving with two other doctors - a cardiologist and haematologist… We know how hard it will be for the remaining doctors but we have had enough.”

According to the Iraqi Medical Association (IMA), the shortage of doctors and nurses in Iraq is now critical and having a devastating effect, especially on small towns and villages.

''I love my country and would like to stay to help my people but… I’m scared that any time a militant will come and shoot me dead.''

“Our latest research shows that up to 75 percent of doctors, pharmacists and nurses have left their jobs at universities, clinics and hospitals,” Walid Rafi, a senior member of the IMA, told IRIN. Of these, at least 55 percent have fled abroad, he added.

According to Rafi, low salaries and the shortage of equipment and medicines, are other push factors. “Medical staff earn US$50-300 per month. They might persevere for a while but if the opportunity arises, they don’t think twice and leave the country,” Rafi said.

Difficult times for patients

It is often hard enough to get to a hospital but the real problems begin once a patient gets inside. It can take hours to see a doctor or nurse, Seif Abdel-Rahman, 29, a shopkeeper and resident of Baghdad’s Yarmouk District, said.

If you are lucky enough to see a doctor, the next problem is getting the medicines, which are either unavailable or exorbitantly expensive at private pharmacies.

“After four hours trying to get a doctor to examine my three-year-old son, I got the prescription but the medicines weren’t available, said Um Fariz, 25, from Hayfa District in Baghdad.

Militants

But the worst is when militants break into hospitals in search of specific people, some of whom, including doctors, get kidnapped.

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“Two of my colleagues were kidnapped because they were treating injured patients from a different sect,” Ibrahim Rawi, a Baghdad hospital doctor, said.

“It is common in our hospitals to see patients kidnapped or thrown out of their beds to make room for a new patient from the same sect as the attackers,” Rawi said.

A senior official in the Ministry of Health, who preferred anonymity, said doctors and hospital managers were at the mercy of militants.

“Inside our ministry there are a huge number of militants controlling our daily jobs. They have information about what is happening in the building - from the cleaning staff to the financial department - and no one dares complain. Whoever does is unlikely to reach his home alive,” he said.

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