A perfect storm for the European health workforce

By Corinne Hinlopen, Health Advocate, Wemos 

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a new and brighter light on the importance of a strong and resilient health workforce, as well as on the disparities between the EU Member States regarding health worker availability. With all the different Covid recovery responses, national and European decision-makers should seize the opportunity to invest in health workforce reforms, for the benefit of all citizens. 

While not a huge television fan, there are two Dutch tv series that I find fascinating: “DNA unknown” and “Hidden past”. They focus on the search for the family roots of well-known Dutch personalities, tracing them back for generations, and ending up in unexpected places: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Romania, Morocco,….. After watching a couple of episodes, you discover a pattern. One: migration is a given. People move. It isn’t good or bad in itself. Two: there’s always a reason for people to pack their bags and leave. Three: migrants are usually accepted as an asset to their host communities.  

Freedom of movement 

Zipping back to 2021, we see that this also holds true for health workers on the move. Health worker migration is a given, especially in the European context with its freedom of mobility. This migration in itself is neither good nor bad – it just happens. People see an opportunity to find a better job, to develop professionally or to build a nicer life for themselves and their families, so they relocate. And given the labour shortages in many countries, they will be welcomed with open arms. 

But we are all aware how some countries benefit from health worker migration, like the UK, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and others, while others suffer as they see their expensively trained doctors and nurses leave, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. The in-country shortages in these source countries can then result in areas with low concentrations of health and social services, so-called ‘medical deserts’.  

Left behind 

Medical deserts often also lack access to other essential public services such as education and public transportation, and suffer from higher unemployment and greater economic vulnerability than other parts of the country. This affects the overall well-being of its communities and contributes to a generalised perception of being left behind. The societal impact of neglected regions is therefore much greater than merely the impact on health and well-being. 

And here’s the perfect storm: 

  • Thankfully, the maldistribution of health workers is on the radar of the European Commission: earlier this year, it has awarded grants to three project consortia to help provide solutions to ‘medical deserts’ through health workforce reforms (one of which is led by Wemos).  
  • Fortunately, health workers are not a finite resource. We can invest in more training and education and in more jobs. To truly cherish our health workers, we also need to invest in safe and secure working environments, with ample opportunity for their professional development. You want to make them feel appreciated and not give them reasons to pack their bags and leave. 
  • On top of it all, the EU’s Covid Recovery package has made unprecedented funding available for reforms and public investments in the member states to help them address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

It’s time for decision-makers at national and EU level to put ideals into practice and show their commitment to a Union that is about well-being and social justice. Investments in stronger health systems and an equitably distributed health workforce should be part and parcel of such reforms.  

Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA. 

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