The Health Board (Terviseamet) is trying to attract family physicians to work in rural areas by paying them bonuses but finding doctors is still proving to be a difficult task.
Pille Saar, head of the Health Board's health care service department, told ERR in addition to the coronavirus pandemic, the board thinks it a priority to find a solution to the lack of family physicians.
Saar said the effects of wage bonuses for working in remote locations can not yet be assessed and finding physicians for rural areas is still difficult.
She said: "Currently, there are substitute physicians for all lists. The amount of substitutes has steadily increased from year to year. In 2013, the register only had seven temporary substitutes, currently, there are 52. Potentially, all Health Board lists should have specific family physicians, not just temporary replacements."
Family physician residency popular among students
There are 35 spots for residency in the field of family medicine at the University of Tartu's Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health. Even though it is the most popular residency for medical students this year (26 applications), it is nearly half of what it was last year, when a total of 46 applications for residency were made, with 28 admitted as residents.
Saar said the profession has become more popular, with more spots for residency opened each year. "At the same time, it is sad that most young graduates do not want to work in rural areas."
Professor Urmas Lepner, Vice Dean of University of Tartu's Faculty of Medicine, told ERR that there is no specific reason why fewer students chose the residency this year.
Lepner said: "Years are not brothers, usually we announce a second round of admissions in August and hope we get a couple more students that way."
He added that psychiatry was the second most popular programme this year behind family medicine, but there have been years where all spots in that programme have not been able to be filled.
It's not just about the money
Lepner thinks making family medicine more attractive in rural areas is not just about the additional benefits offered.
Lepner: "It is maybe not a question of the amount, but rather that the person is just not prepared to move to a rural area. We can speculate that it is not just about the money but also the work environment, there are no other doctors to consult with."
Lepner thought young doctors could also be scared off by the amount of work done in rural areas.
He said: "In Tallinn and Tartu for example, young doctors can be among many on a list, but there are more elderly people in rural areas and if they are predominant, then there is more work and activity."
Since April, the bonuses paid to family physicians have increased. Doctors in Tallinn and Tartu are now paid €823 monthly, instead of the previous €197. If a doctor is working at least 40 km from the nearest hospital, they are paid an additional €1,647 instead of the previous €563.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste