Qatar’s recent difficulties in implementing an ambitious plan to expand health insurance coverage to its entire population are exposing the challenges facing its health care sector, especially an acute shortage of doctors.
The expansion plan was suspended in December, just two years into its launch, as government and private health facilities struggled to cope with the influx of patients amid an acute shortage of skilled medical professionals.
To improve the ratio of health care providers to patients, and to prepare local doctors, Qatar’s first national medical school opened its doors in September of last year at Qatar University.
Dr. Egon Toft, vice president and founding dean of the College of Medicine, estimates that the country needs to add between 250 to 300 doctors each year to be able to adequately serve the Qatari population.
Toft said the newly opened college would help to raise awareness among Qatari residents about their health and encourage a more academic approach to the design of health-care systems. In the long run, he says, the college will also improve local recruitment of and retention rates for physicians.
Qatar has long been dependent on expatriate doctors. Local doctors make up only 10 percent of the physician workforce, according to Dr. Hossam Hamdy, associate dean for academic affairs at the college.
A big contributor to the shortage of qualified Qatari doctors is the reputation of medicine as a highly demanding field of study, which scares away many Qataris.
A freshman at the college, Mohamed Hussein Al Jaber, said young Qataris see medicine as a far less attractive career than lucrative government jobs that don’t require many years of study.
“If everyone focuses on how difficult it is to study medicine, what will happen? We can’t all be soldiers and engineers,” Al Jaber said.
“The time has to come for us to meet our needs with local talents. If we have local doctors, the most obvious benefit will be dedication. They will not think of financial benefits only. Even if the country facec difficult times, they will stick around and work for their country,” he added.
Establishing a national college of medicine is not an easy task, but Toft sees it as an opportunity to tailor a curriculum to Qatar’s needs.
“There are conditions that are particular to Qatar. For example the prevalence of diabetes here is much higher than in other parts of the world, so we have more of a focus on it. Many of our Qatari graduates will end up in leading positions. So we need to focus more on leadership and management of the healthcare system than other programs do,” he said.
The new national college will also produce medical professionals who speak the same language as their patients.
Language differences are a widespread issue in Qatar. Doctor who don’t speak Arabic struggle to get the history and understand the symptoms of patients who don’t speak English.
Basant Ouqab, a first-year student in the college of medicine, said it is important for doctors to be connected to their society and understand the local culture, which allows for a stronger relationship between them and their patients.
“The social background of non-Arabic-speaking expatriate physicians is often different from that of doctors who come from Arab countries. It’s difficult for them to communicate in an intimate way with patients,” said Ouqab, who has been living in Qatar since her infancy.
It’s aspiring doctors like Ouqab that the college hopes to attract.
According to a report by Alpen Capital, a high dependence on expatriates is a challenging problem for health-care providers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The “GCC Health Care Industry” report, issued in February 2016, states that expatriates often consider GCC healthcare facilities as just stepping stones where they can gain experience and then seek careers in the West.
Toft said there is a greater likelihood that people who are educated in Qatar will stay and work in the country.
A first-year student, Menat-Allah Hashem, agrees. Hashem has been living in Qatar for the past 15 years. She said that studying in Qatar and knowing that you can serve the people here creates a sense of belonging.
“When you grow up in a place, you build that relationship with it. Once you start learning in that place, you know that whatever knowledge you gain from this place, you will give back to it,” she said.
Studying at the college combines problem solving, group work and student-based learning, as opposed to the lectures common in most regional public universities. The modern teaching methods seek to provide graduates with the problem-solving and collaborative communication skills they need to lead successful careers and lives, administrators say.
“We don’t just want to teach students a curriculum – we want to have an impact on their character and the way they think,” Hamdy said.