15 Oct 2017

Can doctors win the hunger games?

Monday is day 14 of a hunger strike at a Warsaw pediatric hospital that began October 2. Talks with the government so far have ended in fiasco, doctors have asked the Polish president for help.

Zuzanna Piechowicz
Zuzanna Piechowicz Tok FM, Poland
Source: Tok FM
Can doctors win the hunger games? - NewsMavens
The resident doctors' strike logo parodies the rod of Asclepius', traditionally a symbol of medicine, by showing the serpent stabbed by the staff.

Why this story matters:

Monday is day 14 of a hunger strike at a Warsaw pediatric hospital that began October 2. Talks with the government so far have ended in fiasco, doctors have asked the Polish president for help.

Who's protesting? Resident doctors. Young doctors who have finished six-year medical degrees and are learning a specialty. Residency usually takes 4-6 years. A resident doctor earns pittance -- about PLN 14 per hour for a net monthly wage of PLN 2,100-2,400 (560 EUR). While the national average is PLN 3,000 (705 EUR).

Why are they protesting? They want healthcare spending increased from 4.8% to at least 6.8% of GDP, shorter hospital waiting lists, a solution to hospital staff shortages, less red tape, better working conditions and better pay. They also want more emphasis on disease prevention, which is weak link in Poland's current healthcare system.

Are they exaggerating? Healthcare has been a problem for every democratic government in Poland since 1989. Hospitals are underfunded and understaffed. If you need to see a specialist doctor you're going to wait months. If you need an operation, you might have to wait years. No one has any doubt that Poland desperately needs healthcare reform. 

But the government's reaction to protesting residents has been really disappointing. On Thursday night, the hunger strike was suspended for a meeting between doctors and Prime Minister Beata Szydło. It was the second meeting with government officials since the hunger strike started but -- Szydło didn't show. Despite protesting doctors demanding a meeting with her, and despite them giving in to her ultimatum of calling off the hunger strike in order for a meeting to go ahead.

Łukasz Jankowski of the doctors' association behind the strike said: "We were invited to a meeting with the PM, and the meeting didn't happen".

Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł said: "It's obvious that increased healthcare spending must primarily benefit patients. So we can't spend all the extra money on pay".

Radziwiłł was clearly trying to stir up negative feelings about the 'greedy' protesting doctors.

Disrespect? Tough negotiations? That's just the beginning. The absolute cherry on the cake was when ruling Law and Justice party MP Józefa Hrynkiewicz said "let them go" in response to another MP arguing that many highly-trained, multilingual young doctors who want to work in Poland end up leaving for better pay abroad.

Meanwhile, government, ahem, I mean, public television station TVP's piece on (against) the protesting doctors accused them of leading 'lavish lifestyles'. But a later fact check discovered that images of so-called luxury holidays supposedly taken by doctors were actually pictures from volunteer missions, a Mustang driven by one volunteer doctor was actually borrowed -- ironically, from a Polish-emigrant doctor -- and "caviar canapes" were actually olive tapenade sandwiches, which is significantly cheaper than fancy fish eggs.

Tensions mount as we move into the third week of the hunger protest with no solution in sight.

Details from the story:

  • Protesting doctors want 6.8% of GDP spent on healthcare. Healthcare spending currently oscilates between 4.4-4.8%. The World Health Organization recommends at least 6%.
  • Free public healthcare is a constitutional right in Poland

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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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