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India's doctor shortage: A ticking time bomb

In the "New India," engineers rule. And earn more money.

A doctor works inside a laboratory in Anand town, about 44 miles south of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, April 23, 2006. These days, India is dealing with a shortage of doctors. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — Shruti Kharbanda wanted to be a doctor for as long as she could remember. But after graduating from high school two years ago in New Delhi and winning admission to medical school (in India, medical education begins after high school), she decided to become an engineer instead.

"Initially I didn't really like it, because I was interested in biology," Kharbanda said. "But I thought career-wise it is a better option."

Kharbanda's parents, both doctors, were the ones who discouraged her from entering medicine, noting that she would need to spend years pursuing an advanced degree with little reward to show for her hard work. "Compared to that, getting a bachelor's degree in engineering is the end of the struggle," she said.

The main problem is that in India, a basic medical degree without a specialization is of no use and there are so few graduate specialization seats that competition is fierce. In addition, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better: Professors in India are leaving medical schools for better-paying jobs in private hospitals and in the pharmaceutical industry, forcing the schools to cut the size of their programs. And students who would have studied medicine a generation ago are pursuing more lucrative careers in the technical sector.

It is no wonder, then, that for every 10,000 people in India there are only six doctors, compared with nearly 55 in the United States and nearly 21 in Canada. Regulatory hurdles to the establishment of private medical schools have limited the opportunities to train for careers in medicine, prompting would-be doctors to go abroad, despite a boom in private health care.

So, like Kharbanda has done, many students are opting out of the field entirely. "It is a materialistic world, and the child can see that the remuneration a doctor gets is nowhere close to what an engineer gets. And a doctor has to struggle for more than 10 years," said Satish Kumar Suri, founder of New Delhi's Sahil Study Circle, a coaching center for students taking India's highly competitive medical and engineering entrance examinations.

Since thousands of students with a bachelor's degree in medicine may be competing for a single slot in graduate school, some retake the entrance exams for several years. That means an education that is supposed to take about 11 years often takes much longer. Once in graduate school, students become residents at overburdened government hospitals, where salaries are only a third of entry-level pay for a top engineering graduate.