Germany's cabinet drafted a new law this week designed to ward off the doctor drain from parts of eastern Germany.
A doctor drain in the west, a doctor shortage in the east
Plenty of doctors are unemployed in Germany, but even so, few of them are willing to work out in the country, or in eastern Germany -- where there's long been a serious shortfall.
With fewer and fewer doctors setting up rural practices, especially in the country's more economically deprived areas, the last decade has seen local authorities desperately looking for ways to attract doctors to work in eastern Germany's clinics and countryside.
Previous suggestions have involved sending freshly minted doctors off to the boondocks for a compulsory year to counter the shortage, with the general consensus being that financial rewards are not enough to tempt the medics out of the cities.
The trouble is that with the younger generation moving to urban centers in search of work, few ambitious young doctors are keen to either take over practices or set up new ones in areas where the patients' average age is likely to be around 80. Moreover, pay in eastern Germany can be up to one-fifth less than in western parts of the country.
Liberalizing practitioner law
By relaxing practitioner law, the government now hopes to counter the doctor shortage by allowing doctors to operate more than one practice, including outside the region where their license was acquired, and to hire colleagues to work for them.
Few doctors are willing to work in the middle of nowhere
The new legislation would also allow doctors to divide their time between hospitals and private practices by blurring the line between outpatient and inpatient treatment.
Addressing another aspect of the problem, the cabinet also proposed throwing out the law preventing doctors over 55 from setting up practice and extending the retirement age beyond 68, thereby making age restrictions more flexible in regions where the doctor shortage is particularly acute.
Stemming the doctor drain
Although the Health Ministry does not expect the law to usher in major changes, it hopes to stem the doctor drain in large swathes of the country.
Many young doctors are put off by the prospect of mainly treating older people
Until now, general practitioners were not allowed to employ specialized colleagues unless they were registered as a group practice. By suspending this restriction and permitting doctors both to open branches and hire other doctors, the reform is designed to encourage younger doctors -- as well as women -- who are keen to work on a part-time basis, to branch out in to outpatient treatment without taking on the risks of setting up a private practice.
If it is approved by Germany's parliament, the law will be good news for depressed regions such as Brandenburg and Mecklenburg, where hospitals are obliged to hire doctors from abroad in the absence of German ones. These meanwhile, are increasingly opting to head to Britain and Switzerland, lured by the promise of better salaries and conditions.