On paper, the proposal looks terrific: 231 medical specialty centers to be established, with at least one in every region over the next five years. This plan is embodied in the Regional Specialty Centers Act, which both chambers of Congress have passed and now awaits the signature of President Marcos.

The facilities, to be operated by the Department of Health in existing hospitals, will include regional branches of the Philippine Heart Center, National Kidney and Transplant Institute, Lung Center of the Philippines, Philippine Children’s Medical Center and Philippine Cancer Center. The DOH sees the measure playing a critical role in the implementation of the Universal Health Act or UHC.

Several factors can derail the realization of the best intentions under the Regional Specialty Centers Act. Funding constraints allowed only the gradual rollout of the UHC over at least five years. It’s uncertain if this original timetable can still be followed after the enormous healthcare resources that were deployed to battle the COVID pandemic.
Another problem is the acute lack of healthcare professionals who will man the specialty centers. Even before the pandemic, nurses had been leaving the country in droves for much higher pay and better working conditions overseas. The COVID pandemic increased the global demand for nurses and other healthcare professionals. Even the country’s top private hospitals have reported shortages in nursing staff.At least the exodus of doctors for greener pastures overseas has slowed down, but the country still has a serious lack of physicians across all fields of discipline. The financial and academic requirements for a degree in medicine, and the long years of schooling and internship before a doctor begins earning decent pay are disincentives for many young Filipinos who are considering the careers they want to pursue.

The objectives of the Regional Specialty Centers Act are laudable. But the proposed law must be accompanied by measures to ensure that the objectives can be attained. It’s tough to produce medical professionals when 10-year-old Filipino students are faring poorly in reading comprehension, science and mathematics.

Among those who pursue careers in health care, the pay and working conditions in the country’s hospitals must be attractive enough to prevent them from practicing their profession abroad. If the specialty centers are established, the government must ensure that there will be enough professionals to provide the much-needed services.