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Doctors and nurses wanted: experts warn of medical staff shortage

1 in 4 medics consider quitting due to impact of pandemic on physical and mental health


12 October 2020 10:36 AM


Lorcan Doherty | Barcelona

The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on medical professionals. A recent study showed that nearly one in four have considered quitting over the impact that the Covid-19 crisis has had on their emotional and physical wellbeing.

But, as some experts are warning, Catalonia can't afford to lose any more doctors or nurses because there is already a shortage in certain areas. And recruiting them is no easy task.

The Catalan News Agency (ACN) spoke to the health department, the Barcelona College of Physicians, scientific societies and unions and discovered there was widespread agreement that there was a general lack of nurses, and that more doctors are needed with specific specialties and in certain parts of Catalonia.

Groups representing professionals attribute these shortages to "precarious" contracts, while the health department admits that employment terms and conditions need to be made "more attractive."

Lack of specialist doctors and uneven distribution

On the face of it, things mightn't look so bad. Catalonia has 4.83 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, more than Spain (3.8), or indeed the OECD average (3.4), according to data from 2017.

But look closer, and as the Director General of the Health Professionals group Montserrat Gea points out, Catalonia has "a sufficient number of doctors" but they lack "good distribution by territory or by specialty."

The corporate general director of the Barcelona College of Physicians, Dr. Marc Soler, agrees: "There is a lack of doctors in some specialties, such as Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Anesthesia and Psychiatry, and in some territories, where posts are harder to fill." Soler acknowledges that in recent years the administration has made an effort to increase the numbers, but it has not been enough, he says.

The distribution of health professionals - doctors, nurses and other care workers - is uneven across Catalonia. While Barcelona has 14.55 professionals per 1,000 inhabitants, Central Catalonia has just 6.26 and the Western Catalan Pyrenees region has 5.53.

Primary care gaps

For Dr. Antoni Sisó, president of the Catalan Society of Family and Community Medicine (CAMFiC), the question is not whether doctors are lacking, but "which doctors are lacking".

According to CAMFiC, in Catalonia, the average number of GPs per 10,000 inhabitants is 7.2, while the European Union average is above 9.5. In other words, about 1,000 more family doctors are needed in Catalonia, says Dr. Sisó.

Recruitment issues

About 50% of doctors under the age of 45 do not have any job security, according to a 2016 study from the Barcelona College of Physicians.

"They have precarious contracts, mainly temporary ones, some for just weeks or days at a time, with low prospects, with no time for further training or development, and a low salary," says Dr. Marc Soler.

  • "Catalonia is training the number of doctors needed for the system to work properly, but the problem is that once trained, they face precariousness, work overload, and poor pay"

    Josep Maria Puig · Catalan Doctors union

The leader of the Catalan Doctors union agrees with the litany of complaints. Josep Maria Puig attributes the "very significant deficit" of doctors and nurses to the "cuts of recent years."

"Catalonia is training the number of doctors needed for the system to work properly, but the problem is that once trained, they face precariousness, work overload and poor pay," he said.

Tired and ill-prepared for second wave

These staff shortages and recruitment difficulties come at a time when almost one in four medics say they have considered leaving the profession.

According to a study of 1,648 doctors conducted in the summer, 24% say that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their physical and mental health is so great that they have contemplated quitting. Among doctors working in primary care the figure rises to 31.7%, almost one in three.

Doctors do not feel prepared for a second wave, says Jaume Padrós, head of the Barcelona College of Physicians.

"42% of doctors feel more tired and less prepared to face a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic," he said on Thursday, citing the provisional results of the report from the Barcelona College of Physicians, the Galatea Foundation and professors Núria Mas (IESE Business School) and Judit Vall (Barcelona Institute of Economics).

Despite these results, Padrós stressed that the bulk of medical staff maintain firmly committed to the profession and to their patients, despite everything they have been through since the onset of the pandemic.

More nurses also needed

The number of nurses in Catalonia is 6.09 per 1,000 inhabitants, well short of the OECD average of 9.

Montserrat Gea explains that they are working with universities to increase the number of public nursing places. "There's a lot of demand to study nursing and the pandemic has increased it even more. Young people want to help and are committed," Gea says.

Another of Gea’s goals is to improve working conditions so that nurses who left during the economic crisis to go to other countries that offered them better working conditions, such as the UK, "come home."


  • A doctor checking a patient at a medical center in Salt

  • A doctor checking a patient at a medical center in Salt