China plans to increase its number of doctors by nearly 40% over the next five years. However they face a big obstacle – more and more medical graduates are choosing other professions due to the low salary and long working hours being a doctor entails.

This is worrying, as China's ageing population and growing burden from life-threatening conditions such as cancer and non-communicable diseases is straining many of its underfunded public hospitals. As such, China has no choice but to place its hopes on general practitioners.

The State Council announced a five-year health plan last week in hopes to increase the average life expectancy by one year to 77.3 years by the end of 2020. It urgently called for an increase in the number of doctors from the current level of 1.5 per 1,000 citizens to more than two by 2020.

The plan means China would needs to employ an extra 140,000 obstetricians and midwives to cope with the rising demand after the country obliterated its one-child policy in favour of allowing couples to have two children. However, a recent survey has suggested that it would be difficult to recruit the number of doctors required.

Only a 16% increase in doctors in the past decade

From 2005 to 2015, Chinese universities saw 4.7 million medical graduates, however the total number of doctors rose by just 750,000 - a 16% increase.

Many cite the poor salary as a reason for not becoming a doctor, as the average doctor's salary is just RMB5,000 (RM3235, S$1038) per month.

"In comparison with young doctors in the US, the young in China are extremely unsatisfied with their salaries," said Angela Fan of Taiwan's National Yang-Ming University.

Low pay is also the reason of a common kickback culture in Chinese hospitals. Last month, CCTV exposed doctors in Shanghai who received a RMB1,800 monthly fee from a drug sales agent. The staff were immediately suspended and an investigation launched.

Overworking doctors can cause chronic shortage in rural areas

Chinese doctors are also overworked, seeing as many as 12 patients an hour and are regularly abused by patients and their family members for the lack of efficient medical care.

The problem is amplified in rural areas, which saw a shortfall of more than 500,000 physicians in 2015, especially in specialties such as paediatrics. Nearly half of all registered paediatricians resigned between 2005 and 2011 due to low pay and long working hours, officials said last year.

"If this pattern continues, China will suffer a chronic shortage of medical doctors in certain specialities and in rural areas," researchers said.

Coupled with the high number of medical dropouts, it would "only compound the problem" of increased healthcare needs caused by an ageing society, they added.

Shortage of healthcare professionals is global

The shortage of doctors does not only apply to China. Globally, there is a scramble for doctors and other healthcare professionals. Recently, the NHS has been under fire due to the shortage of doctors and nurses, leading to strains on hospitals, especially A&E departments.

In Malaysia, there is a similar problem - 150 specialists leave the public healthcare sector annually due to lack of career progression and experts predict that the country will be facing a nursing shortage by 2020. Health experts have recommended implementing a culture of employee retention and empowerment.

Similar to China, Singapore faces a rapidly ageing population, leading to calls for 30,000 healthcare workers by 2020 in order to sustain its quality of healthcare. A survey has also indicated that waiting times have increased in Singapore due to a shortage of healthcare professionals. MIMS

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