Deficit of family doctors getting worse with every passing year

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Family doctor office. Source: ERR

There are currently five vacant positions for family doctors advertised by the Health Board, but the number of doctors reaching retirement age is growing every year. It is getting harder to find replacement doctors.

Currently, the Health Board is seeking new family doctors in Tallinn, Keila and Elva and two are needed in Valka, in south Estonia. This leaves a total of 8,700 people without a family doctor.

The doctor in Keila was past retirement age and died and a replacement is needed as soon as possible. The family doctors in Elva, Tallinn and Valga are retiring.  

Health Board media adviser Merilin Vernik said new doctors will take over the lists of patients, but if new doctors are not found then a temporary solution will be found.

"Patients on the list will be guaranteed general medical care. The Health Board works to ensure that the lists have their own family doctor," she said.

But the situation is getting worse every year. 735 - 48 percent of doctors - are over 60 but 11 percent are over 70. Many continue to work past retirement age and until they pass away.

Every year, more and more new family doctors must be sought and the shortage is getting worse. There are 785 family doctor lists in Estonia, of which 50 are served by a substitute doctor. This means there are only 735 family doctors in Estonia.

The share of substitute doctors has increased over the years and repeated competition to find new family doctors have not found a permanent solution.

The Health Board did not say how many competitions had failed this year, only that 10 have been successful and new doctors were found for lists in Tallinn, Haapsalu, Ida-Viru County and Põlva County.

"All lists are covered by doctors, but most temporary substitutes are in Lääne-Viru County," Grete Must, chief specialist of the Health Management and Continuity Department of the Health Board, told ERR's Estonian language news portal.

Le Vallikivi, head of the Estonian Society of Family Practitioners (Eesti perearstide selts), says that the number of failed competitions does not show the real situation as some are never publically announced in areas where the is no hope of finding a doctor.

She said that similar articles about the lack of family doctors could be written every summer for the next 10 years as the situation will not improve.

Vallikivi said approximately 20-25 doctors complete their university studies every year but if 30-35 family doctors retire then the shortage will not be alleviated. This year, 21 new doctors will complete their residencies.

"The [number of people in the] residency in family medicine is the largest, but it does not cover the needs of the whole of Estonia," she said.

Vallikivi said many young doctors want to start working in a center with colleagues who can offer help and advice. They do not want to take over sole responsibility for a single list that has been maintained on a temporary basis for five or more years without the support of a family doctor's center behind them. This makes it hard for doctors who have families or to take vacations.  

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Editor: Helen Wright

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