I’m out of tune with what’s making news in Ghana. I neither watch tv, nor listen to the radio. I don’t even read the newspapers. But even I who am so out of tune know that there’s been some deal with doctors going on strike to get the government to pay attention to their demands for better conditions of service, including salary increment. But hey, I’m your average Ghanaian. I heard the news, I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, and it didn’t affect me directly (there are no doctors in my family...maybe I should marry one) so I went on with my life. Until a few weeks ago when I went to Korle-Bu for my annual breast exam and pap test.
When I got to the maternity department, I met a classmate of mine who is now a doctor. She asked me to guess how long she’d been working. I guessed 12 hrs. That’s as long as I could imagine working at a stretch. I was wrong. She’d been working for the past 36 hours. When I saw my doctor, he and I got into conversation about their working conditions. It was clear that this is an issue that is close to his heart. The picture that he painted for me was in sharp contrast to what I’d been hearing on the news. See, the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital is often heralded as the premiere healthcare facility in Ghana, and news reports mention such facilities as the MRI and CT scanners as evidence of the hospital’s progress. In the past year, it’s been reported that the hospital has successfully performed its first kidney transplant.
According to the doctor, what the media fails to mention is that the CT scanner has not worked for close to a year, and the MRI scanner breaks down regularly. Also, the elevator in the maternity ward is so old that it breaks down almost every week. He added that even though MTN has remodelled the theatre of the hospitals maternity department as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility, the telecommunications company did not provide the medical equipment and the hospital has also not provided equipment so the theatre remains closed. Newspapers have also been known to publish sensational headlines that say doctors are earning 3000 GHC supported by stories that mention that doctors are provided free housing, can import cars without paying import duty and receive benefits such as subsidized lunch and car servicing yet in some cases doctors do not enjoy these benefits and even where they do, the benefits are not as good as they’re reported to be. Even some basic materials such as long gloves used for surgery are not available and doctors regularly risk their own health when performing surgery on HIV patients and their upper arms are covered in blood- an act of sacrifice.
Despite these sacrifices, when Ghanaian doctors threaten to go on strike, media coverage seems to favour the perception that doctors are well respected, well-remunerated people who have little to complain about but who are just crying for more. Once I listened to one interview in which the person being interviewed suggested that doctors complain too much. Adding that as a developing nation, most workers are dissatisfied with their salaries but they do not complain so doctors should also quit complaining. One of my friends even makes the argument that before people go to medical school, they are fully aware of the working conditions and so if they go ahead to choose that career path, then they have little justification to complain later. He goes further to mention that if with the benefit of hindsight, a doctor can still say that he’d choose the medical profession if he were in a position to choose a career all over again, then it goes to show that that doctor derives some unquantifiable pleasure from his/her profession and that they’re not in it for the numeration. If this is so, my friend says, and then doctors should not complain about remuneration since that is not the reason they do what they do.
Maybe my friend is right. Maybe he’s wrong. But I what I would like to highlight is that doctors are right to complain when they get less than their due. Even though on paper, specialists are supposed to earn about 3000 GHC as is reported by the newspapers, the truth is that they are earning only about a third of that, whilst newly minted doctors are earning less than 700 GHC. On paper, doctor’s salaries are to be reviewed every two years but in practice, they have not been reviewed for the past 3 years. In theory doctors should not perform surgeries when there are no long gloves, but in practice, they do so every day. On paper, doctors have air conditioning in their consulting rooms. In actuality, the air-conditioners do not work. In theory, the government services doctor’s cars. In actuality, they receive a small allowance which will not even cover the cost of one oil change. They are not really asking to be paid more. They are merely asking to be paid the amount stated in their employment contract, and for this, I think they are justified.