Revisiting ‘Doctors to the Barrios’
When Aklan-born Dreyfuss Perlas was killed last March in Lanao del Norte where he worked under the national health program called “Doctors to the Barrios,” not many people knew about this government initiative. The photograph of the 31-year-old Perlas wearing a white PhilHealth T-shirt showed a smiling handsome man. The media hailed him as the “people’s doctor,” and other health workers called on the government to ensure protection for their colleagues in the remote communities.
It was in 1993 that Juan Flavier established the Doctors to the Barrios (DTTB) program, in the hope that patriotic medical graduates would serve in the far-flung areas before embarking on private practice or going abroad for more lucrative pay.
Flavier was a unique man who probably learned from Mao Zedong’s system, instituted on the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution, of sending what were then called “barefoot doctors” with basic medical knowledge to tend to the peasants in the countryside. A distinguished alumnus of the University of the Philippines, Flavier was a true public servant who was appointed head of the Department of Health and then elected to the Senate. He worked in Nueva Ecija and Cavite before becoming president of the Rural Reconstruction Movement. His experiences in that movement are detailed in his book “Doctor to the Barrios,” which has inspired many idealistic young people.
In a eulogy she delivered at Flavier’s funeral, then Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago cited his many accomplishments. She called him a true friend during her fight against graft in the Senate, and “an honest man, a good man, a great man.”
A decade ago, then Health Secretary Enrique Ona reviewed the DTTB and claimed that local government units had abused it and done nothing to hire regular doctors. Ona said the program set up as a sort of stopgap measure had not produced medics willing to work in the barrios. The original DTTB was established to attract young doctors to serve the community for a minimum of two years for a gross pay of P54,000.
Some 3,000 students are known to graduate from medical school every year. “What we have to do is make it attractive for them to stay in the community,” Ona said. He proposed that LGUs offer scholarships to poor deserving students to study medicine, with a payback period of 10 years to serve the community
The areas in need of medical volunteers are in the Cordilleras, Samar, Zamboanga, northern Mindanao, northern Cotabato, Saranggani, South Cotabato, Cotabato City and General Santos City. No volunteers go to Basilan and Tawi-Tawi which are beset by problems of lawlessness. According to a human rights group, violence against health workers have persisted long after the fall of the Marcos regime because they get caught in the crossfire between the military and the New People’s Army.
It’s incomprehensible that a dedicated young doctor like Dreyfuss Perlas, loved by the people he served, would be killed. Already, another rural doctor, Shajid Sinolinding, was shot dead on April 18. Whether their killers will be known and justice served is an imponderable in a country where countless senseless murders occur and remain unsolved.
Perlas was posthumously conferred the title of “Bayani ng Kalusugan” (champion of health). That is small comfort to his family and friends.
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Isabel T. Escoda has written about migrant workers, especially in Hong Kong where she lived for many years, and authored “Letters from Hong Kong,” “Pinoy Abroad” and two children’s books. She lives in her hometown of Cebu.
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