Europe’s hospitals face collapse within 10 years

Europe’s hospitals face collapse within 10 years

Europe’s hospitals are facing a “ticking time bomb” of health worker shortages, analysis from the World Health Organization has found.

Forty per cent of doctors are close to retirement age in one-third of countries, meaning the region has a decade at most to tackle the crisis, the UN agency warned.

“Without urgent action to replace the current ageing workforce, we will face a very serious health worker shortage in about 10 years or earlier, when a sizeable chunk of doctors will retire,” said Dr Tomas Zapata, the lead editor of the report.

Covid-19 has exacerbated the crisis – burnout, overtime, and an estimated 50,000 frontline worker deaths in Europe have contributed to an ever-shrinking workforce, the report said.

“Personnel shortages, insufficient recruitment and retention, migration of qualified workers, unattractive working conditions, and poor access to continuing professional development opportunities are blighting health systems,” said Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe.

Shrinking workforce

In some countries, more than 80 per cent of nurses reported some form of psychological distress caused by the pandemic. The WHO said it had received reports that as many as nine out of 10 nurses have declared their intention to quit their jobs. 

Dr Zapata, who is also the regional adviser for Health Workforce and Service Delivery at WHO, warned that the current and future shortages will have a “severe” impact on patients. 

“There will be even longer waiting lists, and it will be more and more difficult for patients to access services when they need them,” said Dr Zapata. 

The British Medical Association said this week that the NHS worker shortage is at “crisis” point. In December 2021, more than 110,000 posts were waiting to be filled.

“High vacancies create a vicious cycle – shortages produce environments of chronic stress, which increases pressure on existing staff, and in turn encourages higher turnover and absence,” said Dr Amit Kochhar, the BMA’s deputy chairman.

To plaster over the situation, the UK has been hiring health and care workers from countries including Zimbabwe, Nepal and the Philippines. Experts have questioned the ethics of such moves, amid accusations Britain is taking the best talent from countries with fewer doctors per head.

Averting crisis

In August, Sir Andrew Goddard, then president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “That the UK should have to do special deals with other countries to support its own NHS workforce is in itself a marker of how workforce planning for the NHS has failed. 

“That we are taking from a country [100 nurses from Nepal] that has substantially lower numbers of healthcare workers than many countries have is something we should have serious reservations about – the ethics of such an approach is debatable at best,” he added.

Despite such criticism, the WHO held the UK up as a country that is “rising to the challenge” and taking “bold and innovative steps” for its strategy of recruiting foreign workers.

When questioned on this by the Telegraph, it said that it “doesn’t have a position on the UK’s health workforce recruitment policy” and that there is “no one-size-fits-all and each country and health system needs to assess what works and what doesn’t”.

“In general, however, the WHO recommends that countries should assess their national health workforce situation and then, if needed, increase the production of health workers depending on national needs,” it said.

It added that, in regards to international recruitment, the Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel should be followed, which says there should be no recruitment from its “safeguard” list.


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