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Emergency in the Icelandic medical sector

Last Friday, the CEO of The National University Hospital of Iceland [Landspitali], Björn Zoega, tendered his resignation. He has stalwartly remained on the front lines of the grim health care cutbacks that this country has seen in the last five years – a job I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Needless to say, his actions have often been highly unpopular – yet he has persevered. Until now. He resigned, he says, because he refused to be an accomplice in “running the hospital off the edge of a cliff.”

Landspitali IcelandThe straw that broke the camel’s back, apparently, was when Björn got a glimpse of the new budget proposal, in which even more cutbacks for the hospital are planned. For years, people have been warning that there is simply no more fat to be trimmed, and that the entire health care system is on the verge of collapse. Unsurprisingly, more and more doctors and nurses are choosing not to work in Iceland. And I’m talking many – I know several of them personally. Moreover, young doctors who go abroad for their specialization are increasingly choosing not to return to Iceland – and who can blame them. They’re getting offered four times the wages, and far better working conditions elsewhere. And those who do return often find that they don’t know how to operate the devices and machinery used at Landspitali because they are ridiculously outdated. The equipment on which they have trained is far more modern and sophisticated.

Just this past week, there were reports in the media that doctors would be recruited from abroad to come to work in Iceland. Presumably these are doctors from low-income areas, who don’t mind working for the sorts of wages and conditions offered here. Not that there is anything wrong with that – I’m sure there are plenty of qualified people overseas who would be an asset to the medical sector in this country. But it just seems a bit convoluted. Our best people leaving, and others, who make fewer demands, being brought in to fill the gap.

But it’s not only the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions of medical staff that is at issue. There are also increased costs for patients. Iceland has universal health care – but over the last few years, the percentage that patients must pay for doctors visits and medication has risen dramatically. So much that people in the lower income bracket frequently deny themselves medical care simply because they can’t afford it. Hell, I’ve even thought twice before going for testing. And that’s here in Iceland – a country that is supposed to have one of the best social welfare systems in the world.

The same goes for the percentage that patients must pay in their own medication. That, too, has  increased dramatically in the last few years. So much so that people who are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease additionally have to bear the burden of high costs for drugs, tests and other treatment. One of the repeated maxims you hear around here these days is: “Only the healthiest individuals can afford to get sick.” It’s said with tongue firmly in cheek because that is the way Icelanders deal with adversity. They use irony to lighten the load.

The list could go on. Overly tired doctors have misdiagnosed patients and sent them home, where they later died. Private foundations, and also the National Church, have had to launch collections to buy needed medical equipment for the hospital. Whole wards have been closed for several weeks during the summer because of staff shortages. And poorly qualified medical students are put in charge of tasks and situations that require far more experienced staff – simply because that staff is not available. And so on.

Meanwhile, the current government, composed of a coalition between the Independence and Progressive Parties, promised prior to the elections last April to inject some funding into the health care sector. The National University Hospital was supposed to get ISK 12 billion in funding, for example. Now, however, that election promise has apparently been trashed.

The Independence Party, vis-a-vis its Minister of Health, has said that there is plenty of opportunity for further cutbacks in health care – which just boggles the mind. Even a layperson like myself, who has no insight into the workings of a hospital whatsoever, can see that this is absurd. The health care system is in tatters. Everyone can see that.

On the other hand, the government wasted no time in declining several billion ISK in revenues via the “fishing fee”, which would have made the elite pay a little more for use of the fishing grounds surrounding the country, or the “wealth tax”, which would have asked the elite to pay just a tiny bit more of their not insubstantial wealth into the common coffers, or the “accommodation tax”, which would have added a bit more tax to hotel room accommodation. Plainly said: the jokers now in poer wasted no time in removing taxes on their friends and families, allowing them to get even wealthier than they already are, yet have either reneged on their promises to the little people, or put their execution into committees and sub-committees where they will be discussed ad infinitum for an undisclosed length of time. Meanwhile the sniveling masses shuffle along, desperately trying to make their medical payments and trying not to lose their homes given the massive increases in their mortgages after the economic meltdown – which the government promised to correct, but hasn’t yet, and seems to have no concrete plans to do so.

And the worst thing is that they don’t even TRY to hide their blatant self-interests while they crap all over the little people. It is appalling.

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  • Chris September 30, 2013, 9:36 pm

    Itd probably about time to drive these guys out of office and replace them with somebody who knows what he does and acts on it.

  • Michael October 1, 2013, 10:24 am

    Right you are. … and perhaps one should add that there are health facilities build during the boom years but never operated after the crash, and perhaps add the cuts to health facilities in the rural and coastal areas, and perhaps the fact that – as you indicate – not some but around 92% (!) of medical students stated they’d plan to practice abroad, and … !? On the positive side: perhaps importing medical staff adds to multi-culturalism which would help to stem the government’s blatant nationalism !? (Or would they promote laymen to become doctors just as they promoted laymen to become bankers?)
    Ps: Wonder if one would be elegible to seek health care in some future Chinese Health Village ? Probably not as I’m told they don’t like the Chinese … except when signing free trade agreements on paper?