• 2004-11-10
The strike called by Latvian anesthesiologists will hardly come as much of a surprise to those familiar with the crumbling Latvian healthcare system. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. And for healthcare workers in Latvia, these really are desperate times.

The anesthesiologists' actions are having a crippling effect on surgical procedures all around the country, and especially in Riga. But most people, or at least those not waiting for an operation, will probably be sympathetic to their plight. After all, the average Latvian doctor makes a risible 220 lats (320 euros) per month, barely more than the average national wage of 208 lats. No reasonable person would disagree that doctors should and must be better remunerated than this.

The appallingly low wages have not only led to the widespread culture of offering "gifts" to doctors just to ensure a decent level of treatment - something that should be a given - but also to a mass exodus of doctors abroad and into the commercial sector, where they make considerably more money. Several Western countries are exploiting the situation by advertising for doctors in medical magazines, with the promise of far better wages.

The Health Minister Rinalds Mucins has expressed his concern over the hemorrhage of medical professionals, acknowledging that a young Latvian doctor can make up to 3,000 lats a month in Sweden, for example, a princely sum compared to what he'd make at home.

And it's not just doctors who are fed up. Nurses make approximately 100 lats a month, as do ambulance drivers, who have been threatening to strike for some time unless they get a pay rise. Healthcare personnel at every level of the system are severely disaffected.

However, there are some promising signs that things are going to change. The annual budget for the healthcare system is 240 million lats, and Emsis' government proposed a 2-million lat increase to this for its 2005 budget outline. But then the government collapsed.

MPs are now calling for a more realistic budget increase of 15 percent, or 36 million lats. There are also plans afoot to totally restructure the healthcare system, including cutting the number of hospitals in Latvia from 122 to a little over 50. The so-called "master plan" for the reforms will hopefully be ready by next year, which is when doctors, nurses and everyone else with a stake in the healthcare system should be able to negotiate a tiered pay increase that will start to put these invaluable professionals more in line with their European counterparts.