A doctor's life is not as glamorous as it may seem. They are over-worked and over-stressed while they're expected to go above and beyond to meet high expectations. They cure patients, prevent the spread of contagions and infectious diseases and rescue people from tragedies. When accidents happen, natural disasters strike and violent crimes victimize civilians, doctors treat the wounded. Yet in most developed nations, medical professionals are rewarded with good salaries.
Sadly, the same can't be said for many doctors working at hospitals in China, who earn low salaries. Calling a doctor's salary "low" would be a gross understatement.
"Junior doctors at public hospitals in major cities, like Shanghai, earn about 3,000 yuan ($450 US dollars) a month in their first few years, while experienced doctors in their 40s are paid less than 10,000 yuan," according to the South China Morning Post.
To put this in global comparative terms, a regular U.S. doctor probably earns more in one working day than a Chinese doctor earns in an entire month. The disparity could be explained through the differences between the quality of medical care offered, but if China does transform into the world's largest economy, then the country should improve its medical care services and boost salaries for doctors and nurses.
Lu Jun, the general secretary of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, made the right move when she issued a public statement requesting that the government offer higher pay to doctors. She's speaking on behalf of an organization that has a responsibility to safeguard the rights of doctors. She should bring more attention to this all important topic. She was speaking at an endocrinology forum in Beijing last week.
The South China Morning Post quotes Lu as saying, "all doctors should unite and tell the government how much money we deserve. We hope to persuade the authorities to pay us a salary that would give us a basic living, and then we can devote ourselves fully to medicine."
Many children from developed countries dream about becoming doctors. They believe they can heroically save lives and earn good pay as an added benefit. Yet, one could correctly argue that it's wrong for someone to become a doctor simply to grab a big paycheck. Actually, the best doctors are those who love their jobs, not their money. Nevertheless, it's wrong to expect doctors to sacrifice so much for so little pay.
Due to their financial circumstances, a new business trend is emerging in which many Chinese medical students are pursuing careers as pharmaceutical sales representatives instead of training to become licensed doctors at hospitals.
As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, "Shi Yingkong, the dean of the West China Medical School at Sichuan University in Chengdu and vice president of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, says that one-half of his students spurn local hospitals for the better paying jobs overseas or in drug sales."
Shi added, "to them, the pay does not match the efforts they put into it."
Pharmaceutical sales reps can earn 2 or 3 times more than the salary of a Chinese doctor. The IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics projects that annual drug sales in China could reach $115 billion US dollars by 2015. Foreign drugmakers have already hired 33,000 staff for China as of the end of 2010 and plan to hire 35,000 more by the end of 2014. Approximately 30%-40% of the recruited staff are medical school students. It's never a good sign for a nation when so many medical students choose a sales job over a medical one after graduation.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government launched a 3-year initiative to invest 850 billion yuan ($131 billion US dollars) to expand access to medical care and provide more than 90 percent of Chinese people with health insurance, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
These are appropriate measures, but the initiative fails to increase doctors' salaries. That's why the policy needs fine-tuning. Beijing offers a solution to improve the standards of medical care, but should increase benefits to medical professionals.
Last month, the Ministry of Health announced new nationwide training guidelines in which medical school graduates must spend three years in residency at a hospital while undergoing extensive training. They will be assessed and only qualified people will receive medical licenses, according to the South China Morning Post.
The Chinese Medical Doctor Association calls the new residency system "essential," but expressed concerns that medical students would suffer financially. The organization endorses more rigorous training, as well as higher pay for doctors.
It seems incomprehensible that many Chinese doctors in Shanghai's big hospitals earn less than many accountants employed by foreign firms in the country's financial center. Now is the time to implement higher wages for everyone in the medical professional field. They save lives daily and deserve to be richly rewarded.
Higher salaries can also curb doctors from seeking financial remuneration elsewhere. Some doctors allegedly over-prescribe on prescription drugs or order unnecessary tests that drive up medical bills for patients. Hence, higher pay can reduce corruption, lower tensions between patients and doctors, while bringing better quality medical care to a nation that will inevitably emerge as the world's largest economy.
Tom McGregor is China Radio International columnist Tommcgregor@cri.com.cn
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