Polyclinics and general practitioners (GP) clinics formed the primary healthcare landscape in Singapore. Due to its provision of subsidies and affordable healthcare services, polyclinics play an important role in delivering primary healthcare to the lower income.

Within this context, it is not surprising that polyclinics constitute as one of the busiest, if not the busiest serving clinic in Singapore. Receiving a high volume of patients daily, the roles played by polyclinics’ key service providers are multifaceted and challenging. There are several key challenges faced by doctors who worked at polyclinics, such as:

1. High workload

High workload and high expectation continue to form the crux of problems for many doctors who serve at polyclinics. The amount of workload can be gleaned from the requirement for doctors to meet a minimum quota of 60 patients a day.

In fact, during the peak season, polyclinic doctors may even have to attend up to 100 patients a day. This is a considerable volume in comparison to a busy private general practitioner (GP), who would typically meet about 40 patients per day.

2. High expectations

In addition to the high workload, polyclinic doctors are still expected to provide competent services to their patients – as would be required of any qualified medical practitioners. The poignant case in 2008, where a polyclinic patient Madam Koh Ah Tow died after consuming the wrong dosage of medicine prescribed by a polyclinic doctor, highlighted how crucial it is for polyclinic doctors to continue being vigilant and competent while juggling a high number of patients daily.

This expectation may prove to be challenging. As a former polyclinic doctor, Tan Hui Leng, pointed out, “We are humans and there is a limit to how much you can do with just one hand, one mouth and one pair of hands.”

3. Low welfare

Since polyclinic doctors are bogged down by the amount of workload they receive daily, their welfare is often less than optimal. It has been said that polyclinic doctors are subjected to extremely short lunch breaks due to their hectic work schedule.

Additionally, polyclinic doctors may also encounter dissatisfied patients who vent their anger on them through antisocial behaviours. Examples of reported behaviours include the use of abusive language, throwing crushed queue slips to the doctors’ faces and stealing of doctors’ mobile phones. This situation culminates into a working environment that is less than optimal for many serving polyclinic doctors.

4. Lack of interaction with patients

The high workload that polyclinic doctors have to juggle on a day-to-day basis often result in a lack of interaction between doctors and patients. This norm in the medical practice at polyclinics may prove dissatisfying and unrewarding, especially for doctors who join the service with a passion to help and a desire to make a difference in patients’ lives.

5. Absence of choice

All the above mentioned challenges would constitute a further struggle for polyclinic doctors since serving at the institution may not really be a matter of choice for many of them. Local medical graduates, who previously received sponsored education, would be required to serve a two-year bond at polyclinics after their graduation.

The attrition rate of doctors who left public healthcare institutions for ‘personal reasons’ or to join the private sector, allude us to two main points about doctors’ experience at polyclinics: First, polyclinics may not be a choice of institution for them and second, most who had served at polyclinics are less than satisfied with their experience there.

Although the challenges faced by polyclinic doctors may not differ markedly from their medical counterparts (particularly those working in local healthcare institutions), polyclinic doctors do face a unique set of challenges. This is especially so as polyclinics function as a primary healthcare institution and the ‘go-to’ clinic for many. It is within such a context that we can better understand the varied challenges that polyclinic doctors face. MIMS

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