The UK’s health system is buckling under the weight of staff shortages and a lack of beds. In France, meanwhile, there are more doctors and many more nurses, yet its healthcare system is still in crisis. President Emmanuel Macron has promised to change the way its hospitals are funded and to free doctors from time-consuming administration, in a bid to break what he called a “sense of endless crisis” in its health service.
A series of eye-catching measures over the past few years, such as signing-up bonuses of €50,000 (£44,000) for GPs in underserved areas, and ending a cap on the number of medical students in France, have failed to plug healthcare gaps. The pressure on both hospitals and GP’s has continued to mount with a triple-whammy of winter illnesses, leading medical staff to nickname this month “Black January.”
After years of COVID and with inflation biting, many say chronic staff shortages and increasing demands are making their work impossible and threatening the French health system. Some hospitals are reporting up to 90% of their staff on “sick leave protest” at the conditions. And France’s second-largest health union has called for an “unlimited walkout” this week, following a fortnight of strikes by French GPs.
Julia Venturini, eight years into her medical degree, joined a rally of GPs in Paris last week. I made this choice but now I have a lot of questions about my future,
“We’re all in the same boat, and the boat is now like the Titanic. When the emergency services go down, the GPs go down, and the hospitals go down – the health system in France is really cracking.” Julia says she and many of her classmates are considering whether to quit the profession entirely or to try to work abroad. I’m worried as a future doctor, but I’m worried as a patient too,” she says. I ask her whether she would rather be a patient in France or in the UK.
“Ten years ago, I’d have said France,” she replies. “But now in France, it’s so complicated, and if you have money in the UK, you can get care. So, I think I’d rather be rich in the UK, and have good care, The causes of France’s healthcare crisis are complex, but the long-term pressure of an aging population alongside a shortage of medical staff was brought starkly into focus by the Covid pandemic.
France has more doctors per head of population than the UK and many more nurses. But according to the World Health Organization, almost half of the French doctors are above the age of 55 and approaching retirement. In the UK, that figure is around 15%. Many younger medics are put off by the growing professional and financial pressures, which are also taking their toll on a workforce exhausted by Covid.
Pauline Dubar works for a medical helpline, set up to help staff cracking under the strain. She says calls have more than tripled since the Covid pandemic began. “At the start [of Covid], people were afraid of the unknown, then a weariness set in,” she says. “And today we are in a very worrying phase where we regularly alert emergency services for people who call saying they are going to commit suicide.”
The National Order of Nurses estimates that 40% of working nurses want to leave the profession, despite the government allocating an extra €12bn (£10.5bn) a year for hospital workers’ salaries.