KAMPALA. The government is considering a plan by the Health ministry to bring in 200 doctors from Cuba and hire retired Ugandan medical professors to plug manpower gaps in Uganda, this newspaper can reveal.
The proposal was mooted at the height of the doctors’ industrial action and Cabinet discussed and gave it the green light.
Highly-placed government sources that asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the Cabinet constituted an ad hoc committee chaired by Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng to work out the finer details of the deal.
The committee’s report is, among other things, expected to clarify the terms of engagement of the Cuban doctors, the expertise required, remuneration and relations with Ugandan peers in order to inform Cabinet’s final decision.
“It (hiring of Cubans) can’t be done as if it’s against local doctors. We don’t want the two to conflict. We want doctors from outside to complement [the work] Ugandan doctors,” another Cabinet source said.
Replacing Ugandan doctors
Health ministry officials, according to sources with familiar deliberations in Cabinet, had presented the plan as one under which they would replace striking doctors with Cuban counterparts.
They were opposed by some Cabinet colleagues who argued that such an arrangement would not be tenable in the long run, with one senior minister arguing that “we should concentrate more on what we have at home”.
Our investigations show that contact has been made between the highest levels of Ugandan and Cuban government, underlining the importance that Kampala attaches to the proposal.
After three weeks, the doctors suspended their strike on November 25 to give the government time to make good on its promises including Shs5m as starting monthly salary for doctors, Shs41b supplementary budget for medicines and other supplies, revising the Senior House Officers and Internship policies and providing on-duty facilitation allowance.
The doctors acting under the aegis of their umbrella body, the Uganda Medical Association (UMA), gave the government up to December 16 when they will decide on the next course of action.
In an interview with the Daily Monitor yesterday, minister Aceng confirmed the plans to import Cuban doctors to, in her words, complement the health care delivery in the country and substitute Ugandan doctors.
“It was discussed in cabinet, but we are not bringing them to replace our doctors. Our doctors remain our main priority,” Dr Aceng said by telephone on her way for treatment to India
She added: “It is an offer from the Cuban government that has not yet concretised. It was already in plan, just as we have doctors from China at Uganda-China Friendship Naguru Hospital.”
According to our investigations, a senior Health ministry official informed and sought authorisation from President Museveni to allow them recruit Cuban doctors.
The initial proposal was to fly in as many as 2,000 Cuban doctors, including specialists and consultants to replace the striking doctors during the period of industrial action, another Cabinet source said.
Minister Aceng, however, said that the Cuban specialists will complement the few Ugandan consultants in training and supervising the ever increasing numbers of intern doctors across the country.
“We don’t have all the specialists we need in the country; so, if this plan goes ahead, our priority will be the specialists we don’t have,” she said, adding that the process is still at discussion stage.
Cuba has an elaborate State-run medical system from which Uganda, particularly its military, has benefitted right from the early days of Museveni’s government.
Health State Minister for General Duties, Ms Sarah Opendi, said that the idea of importing Cubans came as a result of the doctors’ strike, and that it presented an opportunity to improve local medical internship.
“We have not fully discussed the economic implications so let’s wait for a concrete plan,” she said.
The details of pay and other packages for the Cubans, if the deal succeeds, are still being worked out and it is unclear how the expenses which were not budgeted for would be met mid the current financial year.
Mr David Bahati, the state Finance minister for Planning, said they will wait for the Health ministry to submit any supplementary requests.
“We want to get their plans; then the issues of finance will come later since it’s still work in progress,” he said.
According to Dr Aceng, her ministry had a meeting last Thursday to discuss the commitments made by the government to Ugandan striking doctors.
Dr Mukuzi Muhereza, the UMA general secretary, yesterday said the government has not consulted the association on its plan to import doctors from Cuba. “We have heard about the rumour, but if it’s true, then we are looking forward to working with them,” he said, adding: “There are over 1,200 vacancies for doctors, but the system has failed to attract and retain them,” he said.
Official records show that the government, as of July this year, had 1,477 doctors on its payroll. Some officials estimate 4,000 as the minimum number of doctors for the rapidly growing Ugandan population.
Earlier plan. Uganda flip-flop on medical care has endured.
In May 2015, a huge public outcry forced the government to shelve its plan to export 283 health workers to Trinidad and Tobago.
Among the professionals that the government intended to second to work in Trinidad and Tobago were 20 radiologists, four urologists and about 180 midwives. The then Health minister, Dr Elioda Tumwesigye, later warned that the move would present “serious challenges” to Uganda’s healthcare system.
Uganda’s doctor-to-patient ratio was put at 1:24,725 in 2013 as opposed to Trinidad and Tobago, which in 2007 had an estimated one physician per 1,000 people.