Czech hospitals brace for crisis-care mode as thousands of doctors refuse overtime hours

Hospitals are bracing for a staff crisis in December after the Health Ministry refused to meet doctors’ demands for higher pay and less overtime. Hospitals are cancelling non-essential surgeries, some are closing entire departments and stretching their resources to the limit to cover emergency care in the coming weeks.

As efforts to avert nation-wide protest action in the health sector reached a dead-end this week, Czechs are being alerted to the complications of a major staff crisis in the vast majority of Czech hospitals in December. More than 6,000 doctors have refused to sign overtime contracts for the coming month, which is roughly half of the 13,000 doctors serving in hospitals around the country.

In practice, this means that there will be fewer doctors on duty, especially on evening and night shifts. Some hospitals have had to close entire departments and the vast majority have cancelled or postponed thousands of outpatient appointments and hundreds of operations scheduled for December.

Instead, the staff on duty will be channeled into emergency care and essential procedures. Even so, people have been warned that waiting times in ER may be longer than they are used to.

Illustrative photo: Darko Stojanovic,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

According to the Doctors’ Union, the conditions in which doctors work are no longer tenable. They say the system would collapse were it not for the enormous amount of overtime hours served by both doctors and nurses and argue that, in addition to violating the labour code, the practice puts patients at risk because doctors work in a state of extreme fatigue.

Hospitals are presently short of up to 4,000 doctors and 5,000 nurses, and overtime work alone has kept the system going. When, in early November, the government pushed through an amendment to the law doubling the maximum annual overtime hours, to 832, unions put their foot down.

Six thousand doctors refused to sign overtime work contracts for December, and the government’s promise to reverse the decision was no longer enough.

Doctors now want higher base salaries that will make them less dependent on overtime, which now accounts for half of their current income.

Vlastimil Válek | Photo: Office of Czech Government

Sensing a looming crisis, Health Minister Vlastimil Válek offered an extra CZK 6.8 billion for salaries, later increasing the offer to CZK 8.5 billion. He also promised to increase salaries in state hospitals by five per cent.

However, unions rejected the offer, saying that the increase would not pertain to all doctors. Instead, they are asking for an increase in the basic salary of doctors to 1.5 to three times the average wage, i.e. roughly CZK 65,000 to 120,000 a month in all hospitals.

The health minister has rejected their demand on the argument that the country cannot afford it due to the poor state of public finances.

December’s crisis scenario is already set – but Prime Minister Petr Fiala is expected to meet with doctors’ unions on Thursday in an effort to prevent the crisis from spilling over into 2024. Work shifts for January are finalized in mid-December and much will depend on the outcome of the talks.