Nurses walk out

SEVERAL Slovak hospitals found themselves without qualified nurses in their key departments on February 1 as the termination notices of 540 nurses kicked in.

(Source: SME)

The nurses had submitted their notices December 1, and not claim they will either take a job abroad or register as unemployed. Nurses filed resignations as a form of protest since as health care workers they are banned from going on strike. They are protesting against the way the Health Ministry has dealt with their demands regarding pay and working conditions.

Most nurses left from hospitals in Prešov (304 out of 1120) and Žilina (172 out of 627).

Numbers from concrete clinics and wards however reveal the problem in its depth: for instance at the anesthesiology ward in Prešov just six nurses of the original 29 remained on duty February 1, while in the same ward in Žilina saw 18 of its 20 nurses leave. The anesthesiology ward is also problematic in another big hospital, in Trnava.

Additionally, the protest leaders from the Slovak Chamber of Nurses and Midwives claim many of the nurses who were hired to fill the vacancies are not sufficiently qualified.

While the Health Ministry and management at the affected hospitals say that health care is in good hands, the outgoing nurses say situation is far from stabilised.

“Hospital directors are closing down wards and reducing beds, and replacing outgoing nurses with pensioners, nurses coming off maternal leave who aren’t registered, or even with health rescuers,” the Chamber stated on February 2.

Registered or not?

The Chamber claims that based on the appeals from the Prešov hospital they checked 34 of the newly hired nurses and found that 31 of them (including two pensioners and eight rescuers) weren’t officially registered as of February 2, “and thus not authorised to work as nurses”, the statement reads.

Prešov hospital stated it fares better this week than it did in the previous weeks when more than 200 of the outgoing nurses went on sick leave. Hospital spokeswoman Renata Cenková denied that there are any pensioners among the newly-hired nurses. The hospital requested help from the armed forces and as of February 1 there were seven army nurses helping in the anesthesiology ward, the Sme daily reported.

The Chamber also pointed to the lack of specialised nurses in some of Trnava hospital’s wards. In hospitals with enough qualified nurses the mortality of patients is lower than in hospitals with not enough nurses and with lacking specialised nurses, the chamber president Iveta Lazorová said.

“Health Minister Viliam Čislák gambles with the health of Slovak patients and Prime Minister Robert Fico is not solving the situation at all,” she said. 

Čislák filed a criminal complaint with the General Prosecutor Office on February 3, accusing the nurses’ representatives of spreading false alarm. This pertains to the claims that health care is seriously threatened.

“I have filed a criminal complaint for spreading false alarm against all those who have been spreading these news in the past five days,” Čislák said.

Doctors see problems in hospitals

Hospital doctors however called the ministry’s claims that hospitals are working without problems “misleading”.

“It is clear that if there is a lack of nurses in the health care system regardless the mass resignations, it is not possible to quickly replace 600 nurses who left as of February 1 with a few dozen new, inexperienced, and as our information suggests also incompetent ones,” Peter Visolajský, president of doctors labour unions (LOZ), wrote in an official statement from February 1.

Hospital doctors protested in a similar way in late 2011, when more than thousand doctors filed resignations. The situation went so far that the government of Iveta Radičová announced a state of emergency then, which forced doctors to work under punishment for criminal behaviour. The strike ended after an agreement was struck that guarantees hospital doctors a three-phase salary hike.

Doctors now complain that neither the health minister nor the prime minister has lead a necessary dialogue with the nurses.

The LOZ admits that the crisis in hospitals in not comparable to that in 2011, but doctors see that there are serious problems in hospitals with planned surgeries, “and also some acute cases are not solved in ideal way”, the LOZ statement reads. Doctors admit that if the problem remains unsolved, Žilina and Prešov regions might soon see the access to adequate health care get rapidly worse.

Protest might affect elections

A survey by the Focus polling agency for the Sme daily carried out in late January shows that 28.6 percent of those polled decisively uphold nurses’ giving notices, while 32 percent consider them rather legitimate, Sme quoted the survey.

The protest of nurses might affect the decision of some voters, mainly the undecided ones or those who are not planning to go to the polls.

“Even additional two to three percent in favour of some centre-right party could completely change the entire configuration of the political scene after the elections,” political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov told Sme.

Mesežnikov however does not expect the Smer voters to be affected by the protests.

“Smer’s electorate is quite firm and I don’t expect it to be affected too much,” Mesežnikov said.

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