The Czech Republic faces a major healthcare crisis as thousands of doctors threaten to resign over low salaries. The starting salary for a junior doctor is around as much as that of a McDonald's employee.
Mass doctors resignations could leave patients in the lurch
Prague's Vinohrady hospital is a large, sprawling medical facility with a well-respected neurology department that may find itself losing around 80 percent of its doctors as of March 2011. Along with around 4,000 colleagues from hospitals across the country, they have signed letters of resignation in protest at their miserable pay packets.
"The starting salary for a doctor in a Czech hospital is 17,000 crowns per month. That's about 100 crowns - four euros - per hour before taxes," Martin Engel, a radiologist at Vinohrady hospital and the head of the doctor's union (LOK), told Deutsche Welle. "You get more working in a fast food restaurant," he said, and added that doctors ought to be ashamed for putting up with it for so long.
Dr Engel and his colleagues in the LOK are running a campaign called 'Thank You, We're Leaving.' An old-fashioned Czech ambulance is touring the country giving doctors advice on how - and when - to quit their jobs.
Drumming up support
So far, around one quarter of the 16,000 hospital doctors have signed letters of resignation which will be submitted en masse to hospital managers by the end of December. Czech hospitals could find themselves seriously understaffed in spring next year.
Flipping burgers is more lucrative than some doctors' jobs
Dr Engel is a radiologist with 30 years of experience. Not counting overtime, he earns around 1,600 euros ($2,100) per month before tax, which is far less than doctors with similar qualifications elsewhere in Europe. He, his wife and his son - all doctors - have already signed their letters of resignation. Dr Engel says he's now too old to start a new life abroad, but many younger doctors are being aggressively recruited by hospitals in Germany, Austria or Britain where they can earn six or seven times as much as back home.
The LOK wants doctors' salaries to rise to around three times the national average. The Health Ministry has said that is unrealistic in a time of economic crisis and budget cuts. Health Minister Leos Heger told journalists last week that doctors should reconsider their decision and wait for a year to see whether planned healthcare reforms had an effect.
The Health Ministry expects many Czech doctors won't be able to get work abroad
"Saying 'No, either you give us more money now, or we'll create terrible problems, we'll destroy the care in this country,' frankly I think that's extremely irresponsible," he said.
The Health Ministry said it took the problem seriously, but it nevertheless was confident in the belief that the 4,000 Czech doctors lacked the language skills and European qualifications to leave the country overnight. About 700 doctors might resign and leave either for abroad or for jobs in private outpatient clinics in the Czech Republic, according to Heger.
For the unions, it's a game of high stakes: in one Czech region, 85 percent of hospital doctors have vowed to quit their jobs by Christmas. If they and their colleagues carry out that threat, the country could face a serious health crisis.
Author: Rob Cameron, Prague (db)
Editor: Nancy Isenson