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Portugal’s health system needs urgent care

Coimbra, PORTUGAL – Most Europeans countries are proud of their health systems which are among the best worldwide; but in Portugal, the nation is grappling with serious problems.

Ambulances going to Coimbra’s University Hospital. (David Carmena/YJI)

Hospitals and medical offices are short staffed, critics said, because doctors and other healthcare providers resisted working additional hours without extra pay, leaving patients waiting and emergency services lacking.

In Portugal, people have to wait for more than 10 hours at some urgent care facilities to see a doctor. In addition to this problem, when ambulances come to some hospitals, patients wait a minimum of two hours before they are seen for triage.

Some health professionals were striking for weeks late last year, and finally reached an agreement with the health minister in November that, among other things, gives new doctors a salary increase of 14.6%.

Dr. Piedade Mendes from the Union of Independent Doctors, explained why physicians went on strike late last year.

“Doctors were fighting for better work conditions and salaries,” Mendes said.

According to Mendes, the medical workers were trying to get the government to respond to union demands and offer a salary scale that would make up for financial losses they suffered due to years of inflation.

It’s critical that future arrangements will position “the entire medical profession, including interns, with honor and justice,” said Mendes.

Portugal’s government is on duty temporarily until March, when elections for a new prime minister will take place. The former prime minister, António Costa, resigned last year.

The current health minister, Manuel Pizarro, and the chief of the National Health Service  have been criticized due to their management of the health ministry and the National Health Service.

Pizarro could not be reached for comment. YJI made repeated calls to his office at the National Health Service but never got a response.

A patient waiting room at Coimbra’s University Hospital. (David Carmena/YJI)

But members of two political parties blasted Costa’s party – which still retains most of the power – for lack of action.

Miguel Pinto Luz, who is vice-president of the right wing Social Democratic Party, said the government never negotiated seriously with the doctors, delayed any response on the overtime issue and wrongly treated different urban and rural medical centers the same way.

“The government acted with tremendous insensitivity, it didn’t prepare, it didn’t anticipate and it didn’t act,” said Pinto Luz. “The situation, which began in the obstetrics services, has spread to many other sectors and is a dramatic situation, the like of which has never been seen in our country.”

The government should be serious, negotiate and value health professionals, said Pinto Luz. It doesn’t matter to users whether healthcare is provided by the public, private or social sector, the important thing is that access is universal, he said.

The deputy of the far-left Portuguese Communist Party, Paula Barata, agreed that the government has not addressed the problem.

“It’s the wrong response and it goes against the need to rescue the [National Health Service] from the difficult situation it’s in. The difficult situation our hospitals are currently going through is the result of the … government’s political choices, which have not reversed the “flight” of doctors,” said Barata.

Barata criticized the national budget’s shifting billions of euros from the public to the private sector.

“As for what Portugal invests in health, it is urgently important to combat the transfer of public money allocated to health to the private sector. We need to reject the ‘business of illness,’” Barata said, where more than half the health budget is moving to the private sector.

Shifting more to the private sector will cost more and make it difficult for Portugal to offer universal access to health care, Barata said. Instead of shrinking the National Health Service, the country should expand it, Barata said, both in primary care and at the hospital level.

It would require guaranteeing the resources to drastically reduce waiting lists and delays in appointments, treatments, examinations and other health care, Barata said.

Portugal is a country with limited resources, so it can’t afford to waste local talent, according to Pinto Luz, but must value professionals.

Thinking that all public service needs will be met without disruptive measures involving the private and social sectors is not only utopian, it’s negligent, Pinto Luz said.

Portugal will go to the polls in March to choose a new prime minister.

Until then, health will be an important topic in which political parties will tell the voters their proposals for improvement.

Still, it’s possible doctors could strike again if they see that government promises have not been fulfilled.

David Carmena is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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