Nurses have become one of the Philippines' top exports, earning a global reputation as caregivers. But credentials for thousands of would-be nurses are under a cloud because of alleged cheating in recent certification exams.
Rushing to protect the stature of Philippine nurses, the government has promised to punish those responsible. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, has called the leak of questions in at least two of five test subjects during the June 11-12 nursing board exams an "isolated incident."
"This should not be cause for any stigma on our nurses or other professionals who remain to be among the best in the world," Bunye said last week.
That's not very soothing for those affected by the scandal who had hoped to get jobs around the world from Europe, to the US, to other parts of Asia.
Lilian Grace Yangot, a nursing graduate from northern Baguio City and one of the first to publicly expose the leaks, said her parents worry about her plans to work in New Zealand.
She said she feared that only arranging a "retake" of the exams would redeem the reputation of the latest class of nurses and the country's nursing profession.
"But even if we have a retake, it's not a 100 percent assurance that all of us who passed will pass again," she said. "And if we do not retake, will hospitals accept us?"
Yangot said one of her classmates was turned down by a Philippine government hospital where he offered to serve as a volunteer nurse without pay. He was told his nursing class "is not yet cleared" of the controversy, she said.
Josefina Tuazon, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of the Philippines, recently returned from a trip to the US where there is "very strong apprehension about what image this will give to our country and the Filipino nurses."
But she does not expect immediate repercussions on the hiring policies of US hospitals.
"The need in the US is so great, the shortage is so great, they will still need to recruit us," she said.
"But what we're trying to communicate to them ... is to be very selective in the kind of schools where you get your recruits from. You want to make sure that the recruits are qualified and top quality," she said.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration says 7,768 nurses went to work abroad last year, down from 12,822 in 2001. The top six countries that employ Filipino nurses are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Taiwan, Ireland and the US.
More than 17,000 of the more than 42,000 people who took the June exams passed. The Court of Appeals has ordered a 60-day suspension on their oath-taking as new nurses pending a hearing on a petition questioning the validity of the exams.
Leonor Rosero, head of the Professional Regulation Commission, which administers board exams for nursing and 41 other professions, said an internal investigation confirmed all 500 questions on the subject of psychiatric nursing had been leaked; 100 of those were on the actual test. About 20 questions on surgical nursing also were leaked.
The National Bureau of Investigation and the Senate have launched separate investigations.