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'Breaking point': What's gone wrong with hospitals in France?

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'Breaking point': What's gone wrong with hospitals in France?
AFP
13:17 CET+01:00
It wasn't long ago that the French health service was lauded for being the best in the world, but on Thursday the country saw an "historic" nationwide strike by hospital staff to deplore the ever-worsening conditions for workers and patients.

Non-urgent operations were cancelled in hospitals across France on Thursday and authorities scrambled to pull in extra staff to man the wards as the country faced a nationwide strike by health workers.

Staff from doctors to carers, gynaecologists to nurses and students, were all joining the walk-out on Thursday in what was described as a "historic" day of action. A protest march will take place in the streets of Paris.

"The pressure-cooker is about to explode," was how one French news website described the situation at hospitals around France.

READ ALSO Medical deserts: Why one in three French towns do not have enough doctors

Associations and unions representing health workers have united together to call for a "huge demonstration" on Thursday ahead of government announcement on how it plans to tackle the problems facing hospitals across France.

Even before Thursday's demonstration, non-medical staff in emergency wards across the country have been staging industrial action since march to protest at the worsening conditions for both staff and patients. By mid-November some 268 hospital emergency wards were classed as being on strike.

It feels a far cry from the year 2000 when a World Health Organisation comparison of 191 different countries, ranked France's health system as the best in the world.

So what's gone wrong?

"Public hospitals are collapsing," read a joint statement in Le Monde newspaper by 70 public health chiefs from Paris hospitals who feared the crisis was reaching an "irreversible breaking point".

"For decades, the French public hospital system has acquired a reputation for excellence and international renown, ensuring the most modern care for children and adults, that is accessible to all, as well as research and training missions," said the statement.

"We alert you because this system is collapsing and we are no longer able to carry out our jobs in good conditions and to provide quality and safe care."

The problems they listed were many and varied, but also very familiar: Budget cuts, slashing the number of available beds, closures of operating rooms, staff positions that remain unfilled, overworked nurses and doctors and carers suffering from exhaustion.

The result they say, is that access to care is reduced as is the quality of treatment patients receive. This is pushing more and more people into seeking private care, the health experts say.

"Access to diagnostic, medical and surgical care at public hospitals is now extremely difficult, and those in charge of treatment and care are demotivated," they said adding that waiting times for urgent treatment were lengthening.

READ ALSO: Just how healthy is France's health system?

Emergency services workers hold banners reading "Hell at the hospital" and placards during a demonstration to denounce the lack of human resources and hospital beds to face the increasing number of admissions, and claim for better salaries, in Paris on September 11, 2019. AFP.

There were similar alarm calls raised by other health officials this week.

Yasmina Kettal, the head of the newly from organisation Inter-Urgences that coordinates the protests by emergency ward staff, told Liberation newspaper: "It's no longer possible, we are at breaking point."

In Le Parisien newspaper 200 staff who work in paediatric units said in an open letter: "The crisis in public hospitals exposes children to the likelihood of worsening care to the point their lives are endangered by the lack of means".

They described how their jobs had become more like a "war doctors", having to decide which children they could treat, how surgery had to be delayed to deal with emergencies and how some toddlers were driven 200 km to receive the right care.

Staff at emergency wards who have been part of the growing industrial action since March have a list of demands they want met.

The map below produced by the group Inter-Urgences siows the number of hospitals hit by industrial action.

Essentially they want more staff  - 10,000 more in fact - and more resources, as well as a re-evaluation of their salaries and a €300 monthly bonus in recognition of the tough conditions they face at work. 

They say their working conditions are putting them under severe strain and are putting patients in danger. 
 
They also demand the beds and wards that have been closed in recent years be reopened.
 
In an attempt to calm the anger of hospital staff, Agnès Buzyn had previously promised €70 million of aid, including €55 million dedicated to the payment of a monthly risk premium of €100 for staff, but unions say they have seen none of this and it's not enough.
 
On Thursday French government spokesman Sibeth Ndiaye told members of  Anglo American Press Association including The Local, that while she had sympathy for the striking medics, she believed this was not the way to go about raising questions about the French health service.
 
She said: "President Macron does not want to make small changes and put small amounts of extra money into the system, but instead we need systemic reform.
 
"The system is not set up to deal with chronic conditions such as diabetes and an ageing population. We have an ageing population and more long term illnesses so we need systemic reform to provide more medical services in the community and less hospital care.
 
She acknowledged that there were medical professionals who were working in conditions that are "not good".
 
Thursday's strike and protest march through Paris is also a show force ahead of a planned announcement by the health minister Buzyn in the coming days. Here she is expected to pledge more spending on France's health service and a review of salaries.
 
But it may not be enough to quell the revolt, let alone restore the falling reputation of France's health service.
 
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