Budget debate: More healthcare workers needed in coming years

With the pandemic, healthcare workers in the public sector are severely stretched. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The number of healthcare workers in the public sector has increased by 1,800 to 62,500 by the end of last year.

But with the Covid-19 pandemic, and even with help from both the private sector and the Singapore Armed Forces, healthcare workers in the public sector are severely stretched.

Outlining what the Ministry of Health (MOH) has been doing to ease the strain on these workers, and plans going forward, Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon said more needs to be done to tackle manpower needs.

Even before the pandemic, Singapore's rapidly ageing population and increase in the number of people with chronic diseases meant that more healthcare workers would be needed.

So between 2016 and 2021, intakes for medical and nursing courses went up by 15 per cent, while places for allied health rose by about 65 per cent.

Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) expressed concern over the long hours of junior doctors who may need to work a full day, then overnight and part of the next day. He said data from the United States showed that house officers were more likely to be involved in vehicle crash or near miss after an extended work shift.

Dr Koh noted that the Singapore Medical Council stipulates that junior doctors may work up to 80 hours a week.

But surveys show that one in five still work more than 80 hours a week. In Singapore, workers generally work up to 44 hours a week.

Dr Koh said various solutions have been proposed, such as doctors working night shifts over several days, without day work. This has been tried out, and will be resumed when the pandemic is over and the situation allows, he said.

But he pointed out that it is more important to understand the root cause rather than just focus on the number of working hours for junior doctors.

To do this, MOH has set up the National Wellness Committee for Junior Doctors to recommend changes to existing healthcare practices.

Dr Koh said healthcare jobs will be redesigned "so that each category of staff can perform at the top of their licence".

On top of that, he said the ministry plans to introduce new roles and job scopes that blend clinical support, administrative and operations responsibilities.

But he said the biggest encouragement for healthcare workers must come from support and appreciation from the public.

The pandemic has resulted in more abuse of healthcare workers, a concern raised by Nominated MP Tan Yia Swam. The number of cases taken to court had gone up from 1,080 in 2018 to about 1,500 last year.

Dr Koh promised: "Let me unequivocally state that verbal or physical abuse of healthcare workers will not be tolerated and egregious offenders will be taken to task."

He also promised that the ministry will regularly review the salaries of healthcare workers "to ensure that we continue to attract and retain staff and maintain market competitiveness".

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