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Senator presses passage of medical scholarship bill

A doctor in a community hospital in Parañaque city sees her patient outside the hospital to avoid posing risks to other patients. These doctors not only tend to patients under investigation for Covid-19 but also look after those requiring medical attention for other ailments.

Citing lessons learned from the raging Covid-19 pandemic, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto prodded Congress Wednesday to front-load passage of the Medical Scholarship Act to boost the ranks of doctors needed to effectively contain a similar contagion in the future.

“Coronavirus taught us one lesson: We have to future proof our country. Not only are emerging diseases wreaking havoc, but our greying population requires greater medical care,” Recto said in sponsoring Senate Bill (SB) 1520 for plenary consideration and early approval.

In his sponsorship speech, Recto affirmed that SB 1520 will “ensure that there are enough doctors for our people, and that the next time a bat flies from a forest and unleashes a lethal pathogen that will bring civilization to a standstill, we have an army of white coats ready to confront it.”

Urging immediate passage of the bill, Recto reminded at the outset that “a medical diploma carries a hefty price tag in this country.”

“Tuition is so high, and other fees so prohibitive, that the joke is that medical schools should put a recovery room beside the school cashier. Or deploy crash carts all over the campus during registration time,” he said, adding that “this leads to the parents remaining in financial ICU while their child is in school.”

The senator surmised this is probably the reason some parents retain custody of the medical diploma of their child, because “while it is indeed a katunayan ng pagtatapos for the graduate, it is more of a resibo ng gastos for them.”

Recto recalled that “a friend once proudly told me, the medical diploma which hangs on his sala wall is worth as much as the Manansala beside it.”

He, however, acknowledged that medical education goes beyond receiving a parchment, or passing the board. “What follows are years of training and specialization, including long periods of unpaid OJT [on-job-training] stints. Medicine is a profession which has more fellowships than the Lord of the Rings.”

Recto noted that with such a high investment—financial, intellectual, not to mention the vats of coffee to fight off sleep during marathon duties—the unavoidable natural recourse is how to recoup it, adding that “this leads to the congregation of medical practitioners in urban centers where the patient catchment-size is bigger.”

He acknowledged that pressure for a “personal ROI” (return of investment) also affects graduates of state medical colleges for the simple reason that while tuition is free and the fees might be affordable, such are not the only costs incurred in the long march to medical practice.

“The bottom line is that medical education in this country remains largely a privilege only the sons and daughters on the top of the economic pyramid can afford,” Recto said. “It is against this inconvenient truth that this bill comes to light.”

In a nutshell, Recto said Senate Bill 1520 allows the “best and the brightest” from the lower social rungs to become doctors, noting that it was “founded on the egalitarian proposition that becoming a physician should be a function of intellect, not tax returns nor postal zip codes.”

Recto noted that at present, there are reportedly 130,000 licensed doctors in the country but only about 70,000 of them are in active practice. “This translates into one doctor for every 33,000 Filipinos, a ratio inflated by the concentration of doctors in cities,” he noted. In the rural areas, the doctor-to-the-people ratio is very low, the senator added.

“If towns were patients, their medical charts would show the underlying cause: the higher the poverty incidence, the fewer doctors there are,” he said.

“Often, the only doctor in this town is deployed by the Doctor to the Barrios program of the Department of Health.

At the same time, Recto recalled filing, for several Congresses now, two bills that he said “will provide medical scholarships to the young people who have the head and the heart to serve their countrymen. The first is the One Town, One Doctor bill. This proposed law requires government to choose one medical student scholar per town.”

He clarified that an applicant, in order to qualify, must belong to the upper 30 percent of a graduating class of any pre-med course and has been accepted to medical school. “Thus, it is not an unconditional entitlement. The quota is linked to merit. To remain in the program, academic standards have to be met.”

Once enacted into law, the medical scholarship will cover tuition, laboratory, miscellaneous fees, and all school fees; textbooks, supplies and equipment; clothing and uniform allowances; traveling, subsistence and living expenses. If no one from a town qualifies for the program, the allotted slot may be assumed by a scholar coming from another town in the same province.

“The scholarship is linked to the condition that when the scholar becomes a doctor, he will go back to his town to serve for four years,” Recto said. “In short, this is a galing sa bayan, tungo sa bayan scheme of producing doctors. We pick from among the town’s best and brightest, finance his medical studies, and when he becomes a doctor, he repays it by serving his own people.”

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