A return of service
A friend of mine was recently played by Alden Richards in a TV special. “Doc Dalvie,” as my former medical school classmate is called, was portrayed as a heroic, young, dashing doctor risking his life and sacrificing his comfort to serve in a geographically isolated, underserved area. As part of the “Doctors to the Barrio” program, he has a job plagued with problems, like a shortage of supplies, transportation issues, manpower deficiencies, and cultural barriers. There is also the real and present danger to his personal safety, in the context of three killings of public physicians in the last year alone.
While watching the show, I couldn’t help but think that, when the Return Service Agreement was drafted for students of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, this kind of doctor must have been what the college had in mind. The Agreement, of which we were the first signatories, requires us to spend three of the first five years after graduation rendering service to the motherland. The definition of “service” gradually became more flexible, such that we would be allowed to do further training in private hospitals during this time, but the Agreement was drafted to address the shortage of physicians and other health professionals in different parts of the country. We would, in theory, be urged to disperse from the metropolis and go out into the deep, where poor Filipinos in underserved areas were waiting for even a smidgen of medical attention.
We didn’t all go down this path. Some vied with graduates of other medical schools in comfortably filling the slots for further specialty training in Metro Manila. Some went abroad. And yet there were some who joined the likes of “Doc Dalvie,” out of the desire to give back in return for their education, subsidized as it had been with taxpayer money.
For a while it did seem like poor aspiring medical students, those in the best position to empathize with the underserved, would be able to reach more easily for their goals. There was the promise of free tuition in state universities and colleges, particularly among the eight SUCs with a medical program, and of the Return Service Agreement that would be drafted for the applicants. The initiative has been described by the head of the Commission on Higher Education as the Duterte administration’s response to the “brain drain” of health professionals in the country.
The promise might have turned out, after all, to be an empty one, and for those who plan to enter the healthcare industry it rankles especially to hear Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s words: “College education benefits the individual, not the society.” Education isn’t just “a way out of poverty,” as some of Diokno’s critics have mentioned, but a source of productive, skilled members of society—and, it must be pointed out, all the Doc Dalvies of the world. Here’s hoping that the rest of the administration would not be as short-sighted, and would view this as the investment opportunity that it is.
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