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Survey: 1 In 3 Russian Doctors Told To 'Adjust' COVID-19 Stats

A woman walks in front of graffiti showing a doctor trying to help a patient with COVID-19, in the Moscow region.
A woman walks in front of graffiti showing a doctor trying to help a patient with COVID-19, in the Moscow region.

MOSCOW -- More than a third of doctors working with coronavirus patients in Russia have received "instructions" to manipulate statistics on the COVID-19 outbreak, a new poll suggests.

The results show that 35.8 percent of the doctors involved in the survey answered "yes" to the question: "Are you given instructions to code cases of confirmed COVID-induced pneumonia with codes that will allow you to adjust the rates of infection and death?"

The coding system is used to attribute the cause of a patient's death.

The survey, which was conducted between May 1 and May 15 and involved 509 respondents, comes amid speculation that Russia has been lowering its coronavirus mortality rates by ascribing deaths to other conditions the patients were suffering from before or after contracting COVID-19, in particular pneumonia.

The poll was conducted on Doctor's Manual, a popular smartphone app for Russian-speaking medics. According to Dr. Konstantin Komanov, the general director of Medical Informational Decisions, the company that runs the app, registered users must confirm their status as medical workers to gain access to surveys, publications, and other content.

"That way we know that our users are medical specialists," Komanov told RFE/RL.

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As of May 22, Russia has the world's second-highest total of reported COVID-19 cases at 326,448, including 3,249 deaths. The figures give a mortality rate far lower than those reported by other countries hit hard by the global pandemic.

Lacking trust in official figures, Russian medics are compiling a list of colleagues they've lost to the pandemic. The list now has over 250 names.

According to an investigation by independent outlet Mediazona, that makes Russian doctors 16 times more likely to die from coronavirus than their counterparts in other hard-hit countries.

Controversial reforms to Russian health care have seen almost half of the country's hospitals close in the past 20 years as part of a campaign to merge small, rural facilities with larger, more modern clinics. But critics say that has led to the equipment shortages and chronic underfunding that ail the system today and have accelerated the rates of infection among medical workers throughout the country.

According to the survey on Doctor's Manual, the results of which were first reported by Russian outlet Meduza, 39 percent of doctors said personal-protective equipment (PPE) was supplied irregularly or in inadequate quantities to their facility, and 48.5 percent said they had to reuse PPE.

Over three-quarters of respondents -- 77 percent -- said they either already had COVID-19 or considered themselves to be at high risk of contracting the disease.

Some Russian doctors are suspected to have committed suicide under the weight of stress brought on by a high-pressure working environment and the risks of treating COVID-19 patients.

In the new survey, 78 percent of respondents admitted feeling physically and/or psychologically exhausted, and 62.5 percent said they were working beyond official work hours.

In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised monthly payouts to nurses, paramedics, and ambulance drivers ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 rubles ($300). Doctors treating coronavirus patients were promised 80,000 rubles ($1,000).

However, health-care workers across Russia have complained that the bonuses are not being paid, with some taking to social media with video addresses demanding the president keep his word.

Of the survey's respondents, 53 percent said they had not received payouts in addition to their regular salaries.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.