German doctors have voiced concern about the health of their own profession during a four-day national congress in Berlin, responding to widespread protests over low pay and untenable working conditions.
German doctors are working longer for less pay
Even before this year's German Medical Association congress got underway, more than 5,000 doctors demonstrated in several German cities to protest pay cuts of up to 17 percent and longer working hours. And on Tuesday, the opening day of the congress, desperate doctors took their protest to the streets of German capital. Among them was Ravindra Gujullah, an Indian-born general practitioner in the town of Landsberg.
"When you become a doctor, you have such zeal to be a good doctor and to serve people," Gujullah said. "But these things are not so important today. Now, you have to fight just to survive."
Medical brain drain
German hospitals are coming under increasing pressure to cut costs, and are seeking concessions from their medical staff. Doctors working in hospitals are paid roughly the same salary as an elementary school teacher, despite having to endure work weeks that often amount to more than 60 hours.
In recent years, hospitals have cut staff numbers, holiday pay and Christmas bonuses in an attempt to meet government demands for more efficiency. The president of the German Medical Association, Jörg Dietrich Hoppe, has predicted that more and more well-trained doctors will seek better-paid jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, or even leave Germany for better opportunities abroad.
"Our young doctors don't see any prospects for advancement and better pay in German clinics," Hoppe said. "Headhunters, especially from Britain, are currently looking for German doctors -- specialists in particular -- and offering them wages that are three times as high, plus working hours that don't go beyond 50 hours a week."
Patients bearing the brunt
Federal Health Minister Ulla Schmidt is overseeing Germany's health services reform.
Experts are warning of a severe crisis in health services as the brain drain is already leaving rural regions in economically depressed eastern Germany without enough doctors. Consumer advocate Thomas Isenburg accused the government of making savings on the back of patients.
"Patients fall by the wayside in a health machinery subject to cost-cutting and maximizing efficiency," Isenburg said. "More than 15,000 people die in Germany every year due to medical mistakes and faulty treatment, which is why it's important for German doctors to find ways at this congress to avoid such mistakes and reduce the cost pressure. A good health service cannot be had for nothing."
In a speech on Tuesday to open the annual congress, Health Minister Ulla Schmidt vowed that affordable treatment for all would remain the German government's ultimate goal. But in view of an ageing population on the one hand and the rapid advancement of medical science on the other, more efficiency was inevitable, Schmidt said.