KLAIPEDA - Sigita Tomkeviciene, a nurse at a Kaunas hospital, has spent over 20 years in the same medical establishment, but with retirement approaching and with no hopes of it being semi-decent, the 56-year-young spry woman has been learning German with the eagerness of a disciplined high school girl. The stakes are high as Sigita is about to take the German medical exam. If she succeeds, she expects to pack up and leave for Germany to start a new life before Christmas.
For an elderly Lithuanian woman who has not traveled in her life further than to the Lithuanian seaside, it may be a stress-exuding challenge she is ready to take on in search of a better life abroad. She is one of hundreds of Lithuanian medical workers to leave their Motherland.
What for the Lithuanian nurse is possibly a life changer, for numerous German, UK and Scandinavian medical labor force recruiters is a lucrative multimillion euro labor market, where the sought-after commodity is the underpaid but quite professional Lithuanian nurse, doctor or med school graduate.
“I would say Lithuania is seeing a new wave of foreign medical staff merchants. Instead of going to crisis stricken Greece, they keep swarming Lithuania, where disappointment among doctors over their pay and status is probably one of the highest among other professionals. Our doctors and nurses have proved to be excellent workers to have the recruiters back. For the Westerners, Lithuania remains a golden vein, bringing up to 10,000 euros per hired Lithuanian narrow specialization doctor. That is how much some Western hospitals pay to medical staffing agencies,” a medical facility owner, who did not want to have his name revealed, said to The Baltic Times.
If just taking Vilnius alone, last week it saw a swarm of hirers from 11 major Western European medical staffing agencies, their fourth visit over one and a half years in Vilnius. Among them, there was (S)TEGMED, the largest nursing staff recruiter in Germany, as well as “Jorg Herrman Die Personalberater,” one of the largest German medical employment companies.
The latter offered its services not only for seasoned doctors, but especially focused on interviews with medical school graduates and residents, whom the hirer offered excellent possibilities of acquiring a desired medical specialization in Germany. The country currently needs roughly 10,000 doctors and even more nurses, offering great working and living conditions.
Edvinas Peckenas, a physical therapist from Siauliai Hospital, does not hide that he is intending to leave Lithuania and work where his skills will be more appreciated. “Such labor fairs provide excellent opportunities in obtaining the necessary information as to which country is the best. As a physical therapist, I want to improve, explore my career opportunities and get some first-hand practice in a foreign country. I am not implying that our Lithuanian specialists are poor. I simply want to see how physical therapists work abroad,” Peckenas said, arguing his decision.
“I have not finished medical school yet, but I decided to seek a nursing job abroad. There are very few possibilities to get this kind of job in Lithuania; I feel unnecessary in Lithuania. All Lithuanian hospitals overload nurses with a wide range of work. You do not have that abroad,” Lina, a nurse, said, explaining why she ended up at the job fair.
“I am a sixth year medical school student. I am not sure I will get a slot in the desired residency, therefore, I am exploring the possibilities abroad,” Vytautas was quoted as saying by a news agency.
While the German hirers seek to bind those interested into lengthy labor contracts, English recruiters from the temporary employment company ID-Medical showed more flexibility, offering work in the UK without signing any contract.
The annual venue, presented under the flashy name “MedPharmCareers,” attracted over 1,000 visitors this year. Last year, nearly 40 percent of its attendees comprised medical students, one-third made up currently-employed doctors, 7 percent of the visitors were dentists and 5 percent were opportunity-seeking nurses.
For several years, anesthesiologists, psychiatrists, radiologists, dermatologists, ER doctors and surgeons are among the most sought-after medical specializations in most German, British and Scandinavian hospitals. “Less work load, better working conditions and a much bigger salary are the factors that make Lithuanian doctors leave Lithuania for the Western countries,” Tadas Zuromskis, a neurologist, who has been working in the UK since 2005, said, speaking of the reasons why Lithuanian doctors decide to emigrate or work temporarily elsewhere.
Since Lithuania, along with Spain and Italy, are among the countries to prepare the most doctors, foreign medical staff recruiters, he says, are well aware of the fact as they keep flowing to Lithuania which, differently from Spain and Italy, cannot take good care of its doctors.
Among other reasons why Lithuanian doctors prefer working abroad often are sour relationships among doctors and local hospital administrations. “It drives some doctors to despair. Even in some large prestigious hospitals, doctors had to fight hard for extra pay at night, or extra holidays. Though the laws allow that, the doctors have been granted the rights only after the interference of hospital trade unions,” Vytautas Kazakevicius, a doctor, said.
It is not a rarity when Lithuanian hospitals, in a bid to cut down expenses for medicine and sanitary items, also make doctor salary cuts, often increasing their work load. Thus, Vilnius University Hospital has significantly downsized its medical personnel, going from 300 doctors in 2008 down to 250 doctors last year. For the rest of the personnel, the work load has considerably increased, while the salaries have been cut 200-300 litas (60-90 euros), falling under the average of roughly 4,000 litas. While the prestigious hospital axed the doctors’ salaries, the pay for the hospital director was hiked up to 17,000 litas, which angered everyone.
Some doctors just cannot endure such injustice and decide to leave where their medical skills and personal traits, as a rule, are much more appreciated. For example, ID-Medical, which played one of the first fiddles in “MedPharmCareers,” pays an Eastern European doctor 50-70 pounds per hour (200-280 litas), ten-fold more than the salary in Lithuania.
(S) TEGMED, another recruiter which participated in the career days, lures Lithuanian nurses promising them a 2,000 euro (6,900 litas) salary, and, for doctors, a 2,500-3,500 euros’ salary.
Some Scandinavian medical staffing companies offer not just very good salaries, but also free-of-charge language courses for the chosen doctors and their family members. Some hirers even went further – they fully or partly cover travel and accommodation expenses for the chosen ones.
“Scandinavian hospitals are especially on the lookout for psychiatrists and radiologists, as well as anesthesiologists, ER doctors and nurses. A nurse can earn approximately 23 euros per hour at a Norwegian clinic,” the Medicor Careers director, Laura Duksaite, said.
According to Grzegorz Chodkowski, the “MedPharmCareers” organizer, approximately 200 Lithuanian doctors have signed labor agreements with foreign medical staffing agencies in the last three venues.
“Lithuanian doctors are very keen on career opportunities in the West or Scandinavia for one reason – regardless of their medical specialization, their salary is five or ten-fold less in Lithuanian than over there. It makes a huge difference to most professionals,” Chodkowski said.
It is estimated that only 3 percent of all Lithuanian physicians have left the country since the EU accession. However, most are convinced the number is dramatically higher, as Lithuania does not possess statistics on those who have left.