Medical professionals at around 70 percent of Egypt's public sector hospitals participated in a partial strike on Wednesday, according to the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate.
The strikers, who included physicians and pharmacists, were answering a syndicate call for two partial strikes to be held on 1 and 8 January, to demand increased expenditure on public health.
"Egypt's health expenditure is below that of poor countries, not just that of developed economies," said Mona Mina, head of the syndicate, in a press conference on Wednesday.
In 2011, total health expenditure (public and private) in Egypt accounted for 4.9 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), whereas that of Sudan and Yemen was 8.4 percent and 5.5 percent respectively, according to World Bank data.
"We realise that resources are limited. What we are demanding is the increase of healthcare spending in the state budget at the expense of other sectors such as the police and the judiciary," Amr Shoura, a member of the syndicate board told Ahram Online.
The newly amended Egyptian constitution, which will be put to a referendum on 14 and 15 January, states that the health sector should be allocated 3 percent of Gross National Product (GNP), a portion which should gradually increase to match "global rates."
"The provision for the health sector budget in the constitution indicates that it will only be implemented within three years of its announcement. This is unacceptable because society cannot wait this long," said Mina at the conference.
The strike also aims at creating a societal dialogue on how to improve the whole healthcare system, added Mina.
The Ministry of Finance has been preparing a law to raise compensation and bonuses for medical professionals. The legislation was granted preliminary approval by the cabinet last week pending minimal amendments before final ratification, a ministry spokesperson told Ahram Online.
Expected to affect 464,000 medical professionals, the law proposes compensations for risks inherent in the health profession to start from a monthly LE120 ($17.25) and to increase gradually to LE200 ($28.75) by July 2016, as well as a rise in compensation for night shifts and working in remote areas.
The law, which is the result of a deal between the Ministry of Health, the medical professions syndicates union and the Ministry of Finance, proposes compensation and bonuses to be gradually implemented over the duration of the next three years.
All health professionals would also receive bonuses ranging from 450 percent of basic salaries for physicians to 340 percent for chemists and physicists.
"The raises apply to compensations and bonuses rather than to basic salaries, which make them irregular and unguaranteed," said Mina.
"The basic salary for a new entrant physician is LE320 ($46) per month. By adding a 450 percent bonus and LE320 ($46) compensation and subtracting deductibles, a doctor ends up with a starting salary of LE1,430 ($205.57) a month," added Mina.
The night shift and overtime compensations were seen by the secretary-general of the syndicate as a positive step.
However, Mina went on to warn that the salary tables published by the ministries of health and finance are misleading as they assume all doctors can and do work overtime, when they should show salaries for regular working hours.
"The government's resources are limited and the Ministry of Finance already proposed a three year plan. Demanding everything at once is not doable," the spokesperson for the ministry told Ahram Online.
In addition to the main demand for the sector's budget increase, health professionals were also demanding the approval of a draft law which was prepared by the syndicate to regulate the reform process.
They also demanded increased security in the country's hospitals.
"The Ministry of Finance law reduces the project to a mere minimal rise in salaries rather than a restructuring of the whole health system," Mohamed Shafik, a physician and former member of the syndicate board told Ahram Online.
Restructuring is possible and can be done through an extended timeframe but the syndicate is demanding the approval of their proposed law to show the intention to restructure, added Shafik.