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Tired, overworked and underpaid: Why doctors across Europe are going on strike

Strike by healthcare professionals, December 2022, Paris, to demand an increase in the price of consultations, among other things
Strike by healthcare professionals, December 2022, Paris, to demand an increase in the price of consultations, among other things Copyright EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP
Copyright EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP
By Héloïse Urvoy and Ilaria Federico
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This article was originally published in French

Doctors across Europe say their health and that of their patients is at risk due to poor working conditions. Euronews speaks to the clinicians concerned to find out why.

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Many general practitioners across Europe are being forced to take on more and more patients from colleagues who have retired or quit the profession. Meanwhile, these clinicians are not been replaced.

Dr Jean-Marcel Mourgues, the Vice-President of the French Medical Association, told Euronews that stretching doctors too thin has dire consequences:"'It means giving up and losing quality of care, and treating patients later".

Are patients at risk?

Over one in every ten residents in both France and Portugal does not have a general practitioner, which slows the speed of treatment and forces patients to look to other specialists.

"In 2022, we had a slight increase in excess mortality, this was not expected after the pandemic. Some people will say that this was due to influenza, or to global warming ... But this is something which has not been measured properly, it is very complex and is probably avoidable due to people being treated too late," explained Dr Mourgues.

The same is true in Spain. For Dr. Gabriel del Pozo Sosa, the Secretary General of the Confederation of Spanish Medical Unions, the quality of care has deteriorated: "It's not because we don't want to take care of our patients. It's because we have an average of eight minutes to spend with them, and we see up to eighty of them [a day]. In the end, we don't get enough sleep to be able to work properly."

He also noted an increase in sick leave among doctors due to overwork.

Why is it so difficult to recruit new clinicians?

Each EU member state has its own specific requirements for training future doctors, as well as fixed salaries.

However, the doctors interviewed by Euronews all made the same observations: the next generations have been discouraged from undertaking long studies for low salaries.

"This is partly due to student grants, which have virtually been frozen since 1999," lamented Dr Federico di Renzo, a member of the Autonomous Union of Italian Doctors.

In Portugal, general practitioners went on strike at the beginning of September 2023, denouncing their particularly low salaries compared to other EU and OECD countries.

A specialist who works forty hours a week earns around €**1,800 net [per month]**. It is impossible to rent a two-bedroom house for less than €1,200...", said Dr Jorge Roque Cunha, from the Independent Union of Portuguese Doctors.  

While this wage is above the average salary, Cunha said the housing crisis in Portugal has reduced the quality of life.

What are the solutions?

"We need to rebalance the whole system," said Dr di Renzo, who shared the bitter assessment of his European colleagues. For him, it's all about the figures: salaries, and above all, recruitment.

"We need to invest in workforce planning in the healthcare sector", insisted Sarada Das, Secretary General of the Standing Committee of European Doctors.

In her view, it is unacceptable that we normalise doctors working overtime to make up for the shortage of staff.

"If a country is aware of this, it means that it already has a shortage of manpower. It's up to the [member] states to gauge future demand in terms of care, and to ask themselves: what workforce will we need, do we need to train more people?"

However, it takes almost ten years to train a general practitioner and even longer to train specialists.

A report by the World Health Organisation, published on 14 September 2023, warned that these workforce problems in the healthcare sector are a ticking time bomb and could get even worse if no immediate action is taken.

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