Analysis: BENEDICT TEMBO
THE circular banning public health workers from working in private facilities is one of the most short-lived as Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya back-tracked within a week following pressure to rescind the decision.This followed uproar from health workers last week when Government issued a ban on the practice, with the Zambia Union of Nurses Organisation (ZUNO) arguing that there is no regulation banning health workers engaging in any economic activities.
Zambia Medical Association general secretary Francis Mupeta said the issue of doctors in public institutions working in private hospitals is a complex one that needs thorough consideration.
Dr Mupeta said working in the private sector is also a way by which doctors supplement their incomes.
A couple of years ago, Government authorised public health workers to start ‘moonlighting’ in private health facilities to enable them to earn extra income.
This followed numerous strikes by public health workers over poor salaries and conditions of service.
Michael Sata, then minister of Health considered the plight of public health workers, in particular, and took the matter to Cabinet.
Government did not want public health workers to live in squalor as this had contributed to a brain drain.
Public health workers, especially doctors, who are trained at a huge cost to the treasury, trekked to neighbouring countries where conditions of service were attractive.
To stem the brain drain as well as mitigate the public health workers’ meagre incomes, Government allowed public health workers to legally practice elsewhere to make up for the gap.
Therefore, the circular banning moonlighting came as a surprise to the public health workers.
It is the least they expected from Government, especially given the economic situation.
Most public health practitioners perceived it as being irrational. The ban had the net effect of demoralising public health workers
Doctors, nurses and other public health workers work in private health facilities when they are off-duty to supplement their income from Government.
Therefore, banning them from legitimate efforts to supplement their income was unwelcome.
To representatives of public health workers, the circular seemed absurd, unfair and irrational.
The withdrawal of the circular by the Ministry of Health has paved way for dialogue by the employer and employees.
The onus now is on the Ministry of Health to expose public health workers who earn double salaries from official working hours, in which case supervisors must fish them out other than generalising the sanction.
There is a silver lining arising from the circular: the Health Professional Council of Zambia has been directed not to issue licences to hospitals that do not have human resource and any institution found wanting will not be given a licence to practise.
This will compel private health facilities to start recruiting their own specialists and may even collaborate with training institutions to bid for outstanding students.
This gesture will result in those working in government facilities getting phased out gradually.
Then they will be faced with the option of choosing whether to remain in the public service or join private facilities.
In fact, the circular by the Ministry of Health has come earlier than I anticipated.
I actually foresaw the Ministry of Higher Education being the first to issue such a circular.
This is in view of the trend of lecturers at our higher institutions of learning, especially universities, teaching at too many institutions.
My view was that this trend was going to be stopped by legislation.
Today, many lecturers barely prepare to teach and tutor students because they over-commit themselves to make the 13th cheque.
They lecture at several universities and have no time to mark assignments and provide feedback to students.
Sometimes students write examinations before their continuous assessment is ready. In some cases, the lecturers have no choice but to pass all the students to avoid appeals.
The author is editorials editor at the Zambia Daily Mail.
Analysis: BENEDICT TEMBO