MOSCOW -- Russia’s main cancer treatment center has been rocked by a wave of resignations amid complaints about low wages and deteriorating conditions at its wards, in the latest indication of what medical professionals say is a systemic crisis that is endangering the quality and availability of critical care in the country.
At least 10 doctors have resigned over the past two days from the N.N. Blokhin Cancer Research Center, which bills itself as the biggest oncology clinic in Europe, following the publication of a video address from 26 staff members of its childhood cancer institute calling for the institution to reform its management and improve conditions for employees.
In the clip, which was posted to YouTube on September 30, four doctors from the institute decry falling salaries and alleged intimidation on the part of management, and paint a picture of a health-care center that has fallen into serious disrepair.
“For years, children with cancer have been treated in terrible conditions. There’s no ventilation, mold is eating through the walls, and the wards are overcrowded with sick patients,” they say in their video address, which had gathered almost 250,000 views by the afternoon of October 1.
According to Maksim Rykov, deputy director of the childhood cancer institute and one of the doctors who features in the video, at least 12 of his staff handed in their resignations on October 1 and dozens more are set to follow. He told RFE/RL the walkout may ultimately result in a loss of more than half the entire cancer center’s workforce, which amounts to over 3,500 people.
Conflicts at the institution arose following the June appointment of Svetlana Varfolomeyeva as director of the childhood cancer institute. Rykov accused Varfolomeyeva, his boss, of using intimidation and manipulation to force out current staff with a view to replacing them with new people.
Staff who opposed changes Varfolomeyeva introduced were pressured to quit, Rykov said, and many were saddled with an extra administrative burden that left less time for treating patients.
“She urged everyone to leave. So we did,” Rykov said in a phone interview. “Management got what they wanted.”
In their video address, the doctors demanded the dismissal of Varfolomeyeva and her team and a greater degree of transparency in the allocation of pay to employees.
“We reached out to all government representatives, but no one listened to us,” Rykov says in the clip.
Rykov and his colleagues have been given support from the Alliance of Doctors, a medical workers’ union backed by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny which has helped organize dozens of protests over health care in Russia and now has branches in at least 20 regions.
In recent weeks, doctors across Russia have publicly complained about what they say are low salaries and dire work conditions, and many have quit. In Perm, medical workers are staging a mass walkout over a lack of staff and decent pay. In Nizhny Tagil, the entire team of surgeons at the city hospital quit in August, also over wages.
Anastasiya Vasilyeva, the head of the Alliance of Doctors, told RFE/RL that clinics across Russia are reaching the crisis point. In a telephone interview, she called the spate of resignations at the Blokhin Cancer Center “one part of a broken system of health care which exists across Russia” and “a link in the same chain” as the incidents in Nizhny Tagil, Perm, and elsewhere.
She said the trade union’s regional branches are helping doctors speak out and publicizing their efforts, but the various clinics and hospitals that have publicly condemned conditions for its staff are not coordinating activities. “This is all spontaneously happening across the country,” she said.
The management of the Blokhin Cancer Center has been quick to counter the allegations by Rykov and others. In comments to the press on September 30, its director Ivan Stilidi suggested that the doctors who authored the video address “had personal ambitions to take over” Varfolomeyeva’s position.
Stilidi then alleged they were being “steered” by “people outside the cancer center,” appearing to echo a narrative about foreign meddling commonly advanced among officials in Russia. He did not specify what people he was referring to.
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But doctors who have quit their jobs at the institution, or claimed to have been pressured to do so, say that the current wave of resignations is likely to continue. Georgy Mentkevich, who appeared in the video address alongside Rykov, said that some may stay temporarily to offer critical care to the patients they oversee, but few plan to remain for long in the current circumstances.
“People see whom they’re being forced to work with, and they see what’s happened with the cancer center over the past two years under this new management,” Mentkevich told the online news site Podyom on September 30. “Today people are giving notice. And they will leave.”