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Germany: Doctors, Nurses From Eastern Europe Could Be Cure To Shortage

The German parliament last week narrowly approved a new law making it easier for thousands of qualified Eastern Europeans and other foreigners to obtain work permits. But the law was assailed by opposition political parties and may still be challenged in the Constitutional Court. Now, medical associations in formerly communist East Germany have stepped into the debate to say they need the go-ahead to look for doctors in Eastern Europe to alleviate a severe shortage of medical personnel.

Munich, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Burkhard John, the chairman of a medical association in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, said this week he is seeking approval to hire foreign doctors because western Germans do not want to come to the east, where the pay and the conditions are not as favorable.

John has already been in touch with medical associations in Bulgaria and Poland, asking for help in finding doctors willing to work in Saxony-Anhalt. To avoid language problems, he says he is looking particularly for those who may have studied medicine in Leipzig or East Berlin.

German television also has publicized the plight of a new hospital in Saxony-Anhalt that is virtually closed because of a lack of doctors and nurses.

The search for foreign doctors is supported by Saxony-Anhalt's Health Minister Gerlinde Kuppe: "It seems we shall have to look for foreign doctors because young German doctors do not want to come to the east. The problem is not only in Saxony-Anhalt, but it exists also in other eastern German states."

The states of Thuringia and Mecklenburg-Pomerania face similar problems. Aging doctors are being asked not to retire because not enough younger practitioners are coming forward to replace them.

Medical associations in these areas argue that last week's parliamentary debate on a new immigration law did not focus on the problems that could be eased by opening the borders to qualified immigrants. Instead, they say the debate concentrated on issues such as the integration of immigrants and the age at which they can bring children into Germany.

The legislation was approved by a single vote but has been challenged by the opposition Christian Democrats. They believe the manner in which the vote was taken was illegal. The opposition says it will protest to the Constitutional Court if the legislation is signed into law by German President Johannes Rau.

The president of the German Medical Association, Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, says German hospitals nationwide lack around 27,000 doctors. Hoppe says he also expects the number of specialists will begin to decline around 2004. One reason is that the number of medical students has dropped by 11.5 percent since 1995. Currently, there are some 80,000 medical students in Germany. Hoppe says the situation is partly the result of politically inspired cost-cutting measures, which have made the medical profession less attractive in Germany.

The medical association in Saxony-Anhalt says the problems in that eastern German state look certain to deteriorate. There are now 1,400 medical practitioners in the state, but the number of family doctors is already 120 less than needed. The association believes this shortfall will grow to 450 in about three years as older doctors retire.

In Mecklenburg-Pomerania, the local medical association says about half of the state's 1,070 practicing doctors are older than 55, and that there are few younger doctors to take their place when they retire. A similar problem exists in Thuringia, where about 500 doctors are expected to retire in the next few years.

Kuppe, Saxony-Anhalt's health minister, says the shortage means doctors in the eastern part of Germany must work longer hours, even though they are paid less than those in the west.

"A recent study showed that a doctor in the east has an average of 340 patients. In the west, the figure is 282. Our doctors in the east also work long hours. Many start early in the morning and still make house calls in the evening."

Rosemary Ebelt is one of these doctors. She practices in the Saxony-Anhalt town of Zeitz. Her work often begins at 0600 when she visits factories and companies before opening her practice. At night, she makes house calls. At 61, she is old enough to retire but believes that would mean "betraying" her patients.

She says, "There are no young doctors in the town to take over my patients." She does not know of a single practice in town that has trained a young doctor in the past few years.

Germany's Social Democratic Health Minister Ulla Schmidt says she is aware of these problems and is promising to bring the pay of the country's eastern doctors closer to their counterparts in the west.

Medical associations in the east, however, believe that fairer compensation alone will not be enough to attract doctors away from better conditions in the west. They believe the more practical solution is to change regulations to make it easier for foreign doctors to practice in eastern Germany.