Brain drain could create healthcare wasteland in Lebanon, doctors warn

One in five doctors have already left the country or are planning to do so during economic crisis

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Related: Inside a Beirut ICU where just 20 per cent survive battle with Covid-19

Hospitals in need of intensive care staff are fuelling the mass departure of doctors from Lebanon, heaping pressure on the nation's healthcare system.

There has been great demand in the region and around the world for medical staff.

That demand is placing further strain on Lebanon's pool of healthcare workers, many of whom were already looking to work overseas because of the country's economic crisis.

Dr Youssef Bakhach, general secretary of the Lebanese Order of Physicians in Beirut, said one in five doctors had already left the country or was planning to do so.

We estimate that 16 to 20 per cent of Lebanese doctors have already left or are planning to leave. The Gulf will always be an attractive destination

“We do not have exact numbers but we know every day we have up to 20 doctors coming to the LOP asking for their files to apply for ministry of health departments abroad. It is a big concern as we are depleting the system,” Dr Bakhach said.

He said many of those leaving were unlikely to return.

“Doctors leaving Lebanon is an increasing phenomenon and the problem will not be solved immediately," he said.

“We estimate that 16 to 20 per cent of Lebanese doctors have already left or are planning to leave.

“It could take 10 years to stabilise. The bleeding of doctors will continue as the Gulf region will always be an attractive destination.”

Typically, under labour laws, doctors work in UAE hospitals for a minimum of two years. But many choose to extend their contracts.

One hospital source said there was a surge of applications from Lebanon in recent months.

But some medics had unrealistic salary expectations compared with other applicants, the source said.

The collapse of Lebanon's banking system, anti-government protests and the port explosion that destroyed parts of Beirut have forced highly skilled medics to leave Lebanon.

Dr Bakhach said the mass departures would cause irreparable damage to Beirut's reputation as the medical capital of the Middle East and a health tourism destination.

Desperate need for doctors

A study by the European Commission predicted the EU would be in need of about 230,000 doctors to fill hospital vacancies.

Germany topped a list of nations reporting a shortage of staff owing to a large number of doctors reaching retirement age and too few new medics being trained. There are also more specialists in Germany than general practitioners.

As Germany doubled its intensive care beds to more than 40,000 in the summer of 2020 because of the pandemic, the country appealed to migrant doctors to fill the gap in hospitals.

Authorities focused on the 15,000 Syrian doctors already waiting to have their qualifications approved.

Since the outbreak of the civil war, about 70 per cent of medics in Syria have fled.

About 600 new doctors graduate each year at the seven internationally recognised medical schools in Lebanon.

But many look to continue their training in the US, Canada and Europe.

The UAE is becoming an increasingly popular destination, with about 80,000 Lebanese already living in the country.

Dr Bakhach, a professor of plastic surgery at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre, fears Lebanon could become a medical wasteland.

“Even before the pandemic, in Lebanon, our doctors used to look for work outside the country. It is a big concern for us to have them leave Lebanon” he said.

“This phenomenon is increasing and the long-term economic impact will not be solved immediately.

“Before we were the hospital of the Middle East and all people in the Gulf used to come to Lebanon for medical services.

"Now the Lebanese expertise is in Dubai and Abu Dhabi or Jeddah. Patients will not even think about coming to Lebanon any more.”

On average, doctors' salaries in Lebanon are a fifth of what they were a year ago. Private hospitals are owed more than $1.3 billion in outstanding payments dating back to 2011.

It has led many professionals to look to the Gulf for long-term reliable careers.

Malvika Varma, head of human resources for Prime Hospital in Dubai, expects new opportunities to continue to arise.

"The demand in the UAE is always there and we continue to source from other Gulf countries, as well as India and the Philippines," she said.

“We are looking for intensive care roles, nurses and doctors in particular.

“Mostly we recruit doctors from Lebanon rather than nurses."

She said the hospital received many CVs and applications from professionals in Beirut.

“They want to get recruited and know it is a standard two-year contract, but most of the doctors end up staying longer and renew their contracts," she said.

Mariah Siddiqui, chief executive of Hasa Consulting, recruits doctors for hospitals across the UAE and reported an increase in demand from Lebanese professionals.

“Lebanon is well known for high-end doctors thanks to its medical education and training facilities,” Ms Siddiqui said.

“Healthcare is a main priority for growth here and there has been a significant increase in the amount of upcoming hospitals and world-class infrastructure.

“As a result, last year we saw an increase in the amount of inquiries from healthcare professionals in Lebanon expressing an interest to work in the UAE.”