“A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.” The words of John Ruskin which spring to mind when one contemplates the plight of Poland’s doctors. Doctors generally show thought and kindness – otherwise why join a profession dedicated to helping others – but even they cannot live on kindness alone. And thus the demonstrations held in several large cities in Poland on Saturday in support of resident doctors on hunger strike.
The dispute with the government is about pay, working conditions and healthcare funding. Doctors complain that newly qualified residents earn as little as 2,275 zloty a month after tax and have to work an average of 65 hours a week. Negotiations with the government took place last week, but the meetings with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł and Beata Kempa, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, have brought no breakthrough. Those protesting in Warsaw outside the prime minister’s office at the weekend submitted a list of demands.
Despite Poland’s continuing economic progress, the public healthcare sector is in need of improvement. Łukasz Jankowski from the OZZL medical practitioners’ union said: “This is a historic moment for us as Poland is enjoying economic prosperity, good macroeconomic conditions and, most of all, we see a declared will to come to an agreement on the authorities’ part, as well as determination to improve the situation in the country’s healthcare system.”
Of course, everybody would like to see more spent on healthcare and, as the NHS in the UK demonstrates, it is difficult to make finite resources met ever increasing demand. However, the position in Poland is particularly serious. Doctors are expensive to train and are eminently employable anywhere, which given the low salaries of doctors here, means there is a danger of large numbers simply leaving Poland, or leaving the profession. Good news, for example, for the NHS which seems to have an insatiable demand for doctors from abroad, Brexit or no Brexit, driven in part by successive UK governments’ limiting the number of places at UK medical schools irrespective of NHS needs.
Indeed, anecdotally, one of my friends who is a doctor, is in exactly this position. Talented and dedicated she works long shifts at more than one hospital – often for 24 hours at a time – and finds the current system frustrating. Exactly the sort of doctor one needs and, given her qualifications and experience, exactly the sort of doctor who would be welcomed with open arms elsewhere.
Be that as it may, whatever the official government response, state broadcaster TVP has decided that sharing information from some of the protestors’ Facebook profiles under an article entitled: They complain about earnings but they eat caviar canapés. As with all hatchet jobs, this relies on taking information out of context. So, for example, photographs are shown of one of the protest leaders in exotic locations such as Tanzania and Kurdistan without mentioning that she was there as volunteer with a medical charity to help in a local hospital, as was actually reported on state radio at the time.
It would be wrong to blame the present government for the state of Poland’s health service, which is the result of many years of relative neglect, but since this government is presiding over a strong economy, one ,might have thought something could be done or, if not done at least started. Instead, one is left with the, no doubt mistaken, impression that doctors, as highly educated and intelligent folk, are somehow not seen as PiS’s core supporters and therefore may be denigrated.
This comes at the same times as Polish Higher Education and Science Minister Jarosław Gowin has appealed for tertiary education spending to be raised to from 0.44 to one per cent of GDP. Speaking at an event to inaugurate the new academic year at the catholic University of Lublin, Gowin said that Poland was trailing at the tail end of the European Union in terms of higher education and science spending, and that raising spending would improve the quality of education and research. He also pointed out that, since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, paving the way for free movement, one in four of roughly 120,000 Polish scientists had decided to go abroad. “This cannot go on, we need change,” Gowin said.
Quite. Of course, doctors are scientists too, and since a well-educated, healthy population is essential if a country is to achieve its potential, perhaps the government might start to see how it might retain the scientists and doctors that it has.