Taiwan may be facing a brain drain in the medical sector as many of its doctors, particularly a category of skilled surgeons dubbed “knife jugglers,” are reportedly eyeing more lucrative opportunities in China.
It has been reported that every weekend, 50 to 60 “holiday knife jugglers” fly from Taiwan to China to perform surgery or give consultations at hospitals there.
At each outpatient clinic in China, the physicians earn up to six times what they would make in Taiwan, Chinese-language media reported, warning that Chinese hospitals are offering huge incentives to recruit experienced doctors.
The nation could find itself with a shortage of doctors if it fails to take steps to retain its medical specialists, the reports added.
Wei Jeng (魏崢), a heart transplant surgeon who heads the Heart Center at Cheng Hsin General Hospital in Taipei, denied rumors that a Chinese hospital has been trying to lure him with an offer of 100 million yuan (US$16.12 million).
However, Wei said that several Chinese hospitals have contacted him over the past few years with offers of high-paying jobs.
Wei said that he has never considered accepting one of the offers, but he is worried that other Taiwanese doctors might move to China.
There is a joke among local physicians that “if you try calling on doctor friends on the weekends, you will find they are all in China,” Wei said.
He said that Taiwan is already experiencing a brain drain in the medical field as a result of poor payments from the National Health Insurance system, which he said offers “high-quality healthcare at a low cost.”
He also said the government is not concerned about doctors’ benefits, but instead requires them to take ethics classes to keep their licenses and maintains a hospital evaluation system that does nothing but increase the administrative burden on doctors.
Lee Wui-chiang (李偉強), head of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Medical Affairs, said he is grateful that Wei is willing to stay in Taiwan.
Lee said it would be impossible for the ministry to match offers made by Chinese hospitals to medical professionals as 90 percent of the income for Taiwanese hospitals comes from the National Health Insurance system.
In an effort to address the problem, the government plans to set up special medical zones to attract patients from overseas, Lee said.
Doctors will be able to significantly boost their incomes by spending a relatively small amount of time treating foreign patients, he said.
Doctors in Taiwan earn on average NT$8,000 per operation, but can make up to NT$50,000 per operation in China, which has prompted many physicians to travel there on weekends, experts said.
Currently, 50 to 60 surgeons and other specialists fly to China every weekend to work, according to the Taiwan Community Hospital Association.
Jeng Cherng-jye (鄭丞傑), a professor at Kaohsiung Medical University who was deputy superintendent at a Taiwanese-funded hospital in China for 15 months, said Taiwanese doctors can earn hundreds of thousands of New Taiwan dollars a month by going on the weekend gigs.
“For many doctors, that is very attractive,” he said.
Far Eastern Memorial Hospital president Chu Shu-hsun (朱樹勳), also a heart transplant surgeon, urged the government to devise measures to retain the nation’s top physicians.
“Developing a healthy environment for medical treatment is the only way to retain talent,” Chu said.