I have heard this conversation among Filipinos in New York City over and over again.
“You Filipino? Let me guess, you’re a nurse?”
“How did you know?”
It seems like wherever I turn my head, I see Filipino nurses. This may be true in many cities across the United States. The Philippines has been exporting medical staff to the United States for the last half century, and Filipino nurses make up almost half of all foreign nurses in the U.S.
Some health experts predict that the U.S. will have a shortfall of 800,000 to 1 million nurses by the year 2020. American nursing schools are not producing enough nurses to be able to meet the demand of an aging population; so hospitals, with the support of the American government, are now turning to foreign nursing graduates. In 2005, the U.S. approached countries like India, South Africa, and the Philippines, armed with legislation that recaptured 50,000 unused immigrant visas and designated them solely for nurses.
Filipino nurses have been quick to take advantage of the opportunity. Over the last few years, there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of trained medical staff leaving the Philippines; last year alone approximately 12,000 left the country. More college students are now choosing a nursing major in one of the 500 training schools throughout the country. Accountants, engineers, teachers and even doctors are returning to school to train for a nursing profession.
The loss of so many trained physicians to the nursing ranks is particularly troubling. According to a study led by former Philippine Secretary of Health Jaime Galvez-Tan, close to 80 percent of all government doctors have become nurses or are in nursing schools. There are roughly 9,000 doctors-turned-nurses and 5,000 of all these medical practitioners are now working abroad.
To find out the impact of this exodus of nurses from the Philippines, I traveled to Sarangani Island at the southern tip of the country. The only way to reach the island from the city was to hitch a ride on a cargo boat without seats, toilets and windows. The night we sailed, strong waves rocked the boat as rain poured. At one point, the boat nearly flooded. I felt lucky just to survive the 8-hour journey.
But that is the way the people of Sarangani Island live. To buy groceries or to go to the nearest bank, they must take that long boat ride. The one hospital on the island is poorly equipped and has only one nurse and no doctor. If there’s a medical emergency requiring a doctor, the patient has to take the boat. As I learned, the situation is only going to worsen: The lone nurse on the island tells me he will be leaving soon to work in London. (In fact, since this story was first reported, the nurse has left and the hospital has shut down.)
By the end of 2005, nearly 120 hospitals in rural areas have closed because there is no one left to see patients. Former Health Secretary Galvez-Tan fears that if this brain drain does not slow, the Philippine health care system will collapse.
— Barnaby Lo