Western demand drains Philippines of 85 per cent of its trained nurses

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The Independent Online

People in the Philippines are queuing up to train as nurses as they seek ways of escaping dire poverty by working abroad. This year 15,000 Filipinos will leave to nurse the sick and the aged in the West, following the vast majority of the country's trained nurses.

"I'm married with two kids and I want a better future for them. I want to be able to save and hope they will follow on," said Allan Famatid, who is seeking work at an employment agency in the central Philippines city of Iloilo, a bustling urban centre where many of the country's top training facilities for the caring profession are located.

The nursing schools in places like Iloilo fill a growing need for health professionals among the greying populations of the rich countries in the West; the UK and other European countries are expected to need 50,000 nurses a year based on current rates of ageing and dependency ratios.

The Philippines Health Secretary, Francisco Duque, has estimated that 85 per cent of the country's nurses have left the country. Many graduates are retraining so they can join the exodus .

Alan Famatid, a 28-year-old management graduate, is now training as a nurse because he believes it will give him a better chance of finding work in hospitals in the West. People are the Philippines' biggest export – nine million of the country's 82 million people live outside the country and send home £500m a month in remittances through the banking system, making up about 12 per cent of the Philippines' gross domestic product.

"Working as a nurse gives you the chance of earning a higher salary in places such as London," said Neal Ganchero, 32, who has nursed in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which still takes the bulk of Filipino migrant nurses.

Even qualified doctors are retraining as nurses because they can earn much more working in foreign hospitals. The exodus has become so huge that the World Health Organisation is concerned about the effect it is having on the Philippines' health system.

The shortage of doctors and other medical staff is most acute in rural areas, as most of the city hospitals can always find trainees to do the work.

Iloilo's deputy mayor, Jed Mabilog, said the Philippines' high birth rate makes it possible to train so many skilled workers, combined with the widespread use of English. "Of course it's sad for us because we lose a lot of good nurses and specialist labour but we have a lot of people. There is a brain drain but we continually produce people who can replicate the skills [we need]," he said.

The WHO country representative, Jean Marc Olive, believes that the exodus of nurses will continue until 2015, with annual demand for medical workers in the United States and Europe estimated to be about 800,000.

The talk among the 3,000 nursing students on campus at the Central Philippine University is about where the latest openings are – with the UK back on the wish list. Florevy Diana, 18, a first-year student, said that when she graduates she would like to work in London where her aunt has worked for 10 years.

Another student, Jay Martin Diaz, 18, has a sister in London, but says he would rather go to the US: "Most people want to go to the US, where they earn more money. But the agencies will tell us about what is open and inform us. Wherever we go, it is important there is a Filipino community to help us adjust."

The Filipino desire to help their families is the driving force behind a willingness to travel and work abroad, often alone and for many years. Migrants from the Philippines first started moving to Britain in 1971 as student nurses, but their entry was barred in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, a chronic shortage of nurses meant opportunites became available again with up to 40,000 finding work in Britain.

Despite the chronic shortage of nurses in the NHS, priority in recent years has been given to labour from eastern Europe. The Home Office removed general nurses from the occupations shortage list in April 2006, making it harder for Filipino nurses to move to Britain. But with a new points system being introduced on 1 March favouring highly skilled workers, nursesin Iloilo are hopeful that jobs in Britain will become available again.

"The new points system will benefit Filipino nurses if, and only if, their level of high education and years of experience are considered," said Michael Duque, president of the UK Philippine Nurses Association. "Remember that most Filipino nurses have a BSc in nursing with at least three to five years of actual clinical experience after graduation. Also a good percentage of Filipino nurses have some level of masters education,"