Are doctors, nurses leaving public hospitals for money?

A bonus payout is usually a good thing.

But for bosses in the public health sector, it's also a worrying time.

Once the money is banked in, some doctors and nurses call it quits.

And with the opening of two new hospitals, the temptation may be for them to join the private sector.

Speaking to The New Paper under the condition of anonymity, a doctor leaving the public sector said July and August are the "usual period of the year that medical personnel hand in their letters".

She said: "In general, bonuses at public hospitals are paid out twice a year, with the majority in July.

"So, depending on the notice period required, we serve notice only after the money's in the bank."

TNP understands that the opening of the new private hospitals has affected the public sector hospitals.

A number of specialists in areas such as orthopaedics, cancer, gynaecology and anaesthesia recently handed in their resignation letters at the seven public hospitals.

The typical period of notice for doctors is between one and three months, depending on their seniority.

But when approached, six public hospitals contacted by TNP were tight-lipped about the number of staff leaving.

Until now, it has been good for the administrators of public hospitals.

In the first half of this year, fewer nurses and doctors left for the private sector.

A Ministry of Health spokesman said the attrition rates for doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and pharmacists in the first half of this year went down overall, compared with the same period last year.

The number of doctors joining private institutions fell to 3.1 per cent from 3.2 per cent in the same period last year.

Nurses who left went down to 4 per cent from 5 per cent, and allied health professionals and pharmacists was also down to 4.6 per cent from 6.9 per cent.

To counter the possibility of doctors and nurses leaving in the second half of the year, different hospitals give out bonuses at different times, said a doctor who also asked to remain unnamed.

But that may still not be enough.

Said the doctor, who left the public sector earlier this year: "Some, like the Singapore General Hospital, have started a retention bonus which comprises quite a large sum.

"It's paid to a select few and in stages.

"The new Mount Elizabeth Novena opened early last month with only a handful of doctors.

"They expect the bulk to come in once these doctors serve out their time, to start operation by the end of this year."

A plastic surgeon with a clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre said several specialists from the public hospitals "have already bought units" there.

So, how many new specialists have registered to practice with the Parkway group which has under its wing the new Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre?

Dr Lim Suet Wun, executive vice-president (Singapore operations) at the Parkway Pantai Group, did not give numbers.

'Their own boss'

Instead, she said: "The specialists accredited with Mount Elizabeth, Mount Elizabeth Novena, Gleneagles and Parkway East hospitals are private operators and run their own practice.

"They're not our employees. Many of them like being their own bosses."

The other new hospital, run by The Farrer Park Company, is scheduled to open next year.

Its management declined to comment.

TNP understands that public sector nurses are also being approached.

How do the public hospitals react to the news of doctors and nurses leaving?

Some recognise "the need to recruit and retain trained and committed health-care staff to serve in public health care".

Others "strive to be employers of choice by inculcating a corporate culture that rewards excellence and promotes individual, as well as team growth and development".

Alexandra Health, which runs the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, was the only public institution that replied to TNP's queries.

Its spokesman said that between April and June this year, the number of resignations of its medical staff on average "actually dropped by 2 per cent", compared with the same period last year.

But the spokesman did not elaborate on those who may have resigned after June.

Said the spokesman: "Besides monetary remuneration, we focus on efforts in employee engagement through activities, such as communication sessions and bonding sessions..."

Khoo Teck Puat also puts staff in cross-functional project teams and continuously steps up opportunities for training and development "to make it attractive for our staff to stay with us".

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