Greece's overworked health care system struggles with rising tide of COVID-19

Greece's overworked health care system struggles with rising tide of COVID-19

Underpaid hospital staff and equipment, drug shortages test limits amid coronavirus, flu outbreaks

By Magda Panoutsopoulou

ATHENS (AA) - The coronavirus pandemic has pushed health care systems in Europe to the breaking point, including Greece, where years of austerity measures, a nearly bankrupt economy and bailout deals have brought the country to its financial knees.

Now, Greece is also facing unprecedented pressure on its health care system.

Exiting a years-long bailout program, the Greeks managed a short breath up until the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war which triggered a cost of living surge in Europe, with Greece's national health system among the critical sectors affected.

While health care in Greece has long been beset by numerous problems, the emergence of COVID-19 brought renewed attention.

A shortage in staff, inventory, intensive care units (ICU) for COVID-19 cases and drugs have all burdened the system.

"We're understaffed," said a nurse at the Kat General Hospital, who spoke to Anadolu on condition of anonymity. She described how working conditions have become unbearable as the hospital, like most others in the country, suffers from staff shortages.

She complained that hospital management, with the government's blessing, has been transferring health professionals for short periods from hospital to hospital, creating greater workloads and a diminished quality of service.

"This has to stop. We get colleagues transferred to other hospitals, leaving a gap in our hospital -- meaning we have to do their work or hire a temp for a period of three months, while we need almost a month to train them, then they will take their days off which will leave little more than a month of work," she said.

"This practice that the government is following is dangerous," according to a recent statement by the Union of Kat Hospital Employees, which said that the situation had come to a "standstill" despite previous warnings by staff and labor officials.

"From the beginning of the new management administration and repeatedly over the years, they have continued with the same tactics, even placing the responsibility on the employees, even covering practices such as that of the director of the nursing department who demanded, as a condition for granting leaves, the non-signing of renewal contracts of their supplementary colleagues," it said.

Union President Paraskevi Pakou said there have been problems at Greek hospitals for years but that they culminated in the pandemic with staff shortages.

She told Anadolu that problems existed under all governments but that the current situation was the result of governments choosing to avoid hiring new personnel with the excuse of the mid-2010s bailout deal and the pandemic.

"The point is that everything leads to the same result," Pakou said, accusing governments and hospital management of trying to cover vacancies by minimizing spending and hiring non-permanent personnel or contractors.

"Their goal is to have less staff, working intensely and badly compensated regardless of the quality of service they provide," she said.

At Kat, there are 34 nurses for 21 intubated COVID-19 patients, with sometimes just two nurses covering a shift with eight of those patients, according to the statement.

Anna Pardali, a pediatrician with a private practice and the vice president of the union of pediatricians in the Attica region, said staff shortages began emerging when the memoranda was signed in May 2010.

"Many doctors retired and were not replaced and the needs of hospitals were covered in the best scenario by temporary doctors," she told Anadolu.

The situation was a little better before then, but still often fell short, especially in the hospitalization needs required for children, she said.

Pardali said the eruption of COVID-19 created new needs for specialized intensive care personnel not only when it came to doctors but for paramedical staff as well, such as specialized intensive care nurses and technical equipment for such units.

"In periods of increased morbidity like this year, the shortcomings of all the previous years piled up and were evident more than ever. Regarding children, their waiting (periods) in outpatient clinics and emergency departments of hospitals reached and exceeded 10 hours, while available free beds were only for very serious hospitalizations," said Pardali.

One problem that has often been raised is the high morbidity figures, even as, it is claimed, the private sector absorbs a large number of patients -- up to 80% -- which would have added to long lines at public hospitals, according to statistical records, said Pardali.

Greece has seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases. Along with the flu season and years of fatigue for health care professionals, pressure continues to mount in hospitals.

Despite the COVID surge, the government has chosen just two hospitals in Athens to treat cases, said Pakou.

These two are the Kat and Sotiria hospitals, which specialize in lower respiratory illnesses.

Pardali warned that only two hospitals would not be enough to deal with the rising wave of cases as deaths have increased from 80-100 per week in the previous months to the current 130-150.

According to data from the Health Ministry provided by the country's National Health Service Workers' Federation (POEDIN), there are 1,165 intensive care unit beds available, in which 976 patients are currently being treated.

However, some empty beds are out of order or unusable due to a shortage of staff and equipment.

"We demand the hiring of new staff," said the union, calling on the hospital administration to suspend all staff movements so patients and employees could be treated safely and according to their rights.

"We are under no illusion that the real needs of the hospital will be met," it added.

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