Friday 21 October 2016

Athens to Athenry... can Greek doctors cure our chronic shortage of family GPs?

Our reporter on one Irish woman's prescription to end the chronic shortage of family GPs

Graham Clifford

Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30

Mayday: Edel Michailidou and Dr Emmanouil Kouvousis outside a hospital in Athens this week. Photo: Maro Kouri
Mayday: Edel Michailidou and Dr Emmanouil Kouvousis outside a hospital in Athens this week. Photo: Maro Kouri

'Greek doctors are so well suited to Ireland. Culturally we're very similar, it's an ideal place for a Greek family to relocate to," says Edel Michailidou.

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And she should know.

Originally a Mulvihill from Finuge in north Kerry, the qualified radiographer had to up sticks and leave the family home in Athens with her Greek husband, Dimitris - a civil engineer - and two young sons, Manos and Eddie, in 2012 as the economic crash came toppling down on them.

"We had no choice. Few had work, those who did couldn't get paid. We love Greece, Athens, our home…but we had to get out of there at the time and move back to Ireland," says Edel.

She found work in the radiology department of Kerry General Hospital in Tralee, and after almost two years, the family were able to move back to Athens where they unlocked the door of their home, dusted off the furniture, threw open the windows to allow the sun back in and started all over again. Fourteen months ago she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Maria.

And now Edel is using her own experience to help Greek doctors find work in Ireland. To move from Athens to Athenry.

This weekend her company Medel Recruitment will host two open days informing Greek medics about the work opportunities which exist for them in Ireland, about the way of life and the culture.

"My aim is to work as a contractor for a number of agencies which recruit in Ireland, and the UK. While large agencies do visit Athens occasionally, doctors here are often just names on a database. Many know virtually nothing about Ireland. I want to work on a one-to-one basis with them to make sure they go for the positions which are best suited to them so that they, their families, and their prospective employers in Ireland are happy with the outcome," says Edel.

Since the downturn, Greek doctors have left in their tens of thousands. It's estimated that at least 40,000 have moved to work in Germany alone. Others have left for Sweden, the UK and Switzerland.

"This is the first time that Ireland will be specifically promoted here in Athens as a destination for doctors seeking to leave," explains Edel who appeared on a popular Sky television news programme in Greece this week speaking about work prospects in Ireland.

The Irish Embassy in Athens is backing this weekend's initiative and a diplomat will speak with doctors about what Ireland has to offer while the Medical Association of Athens, is also on board. One recruitment company from Ireland will have personnel available to answer questions and an English-language school representative will be on hand to speak with doctors about the required linguistic fluency.

For 53-year-old cardiologist Emmanouil Kouvousis, the prospect of working in Ireland appeals.

He tells me: "I work as a specialist in my own practice here in Athens and the high levels of tax are crippling. I'm working more and more for less and less. It's not sustainable. Next year we will have to pay between 60 and 70pc in tax on all our earnings starting with the first euro. I am married with two children so I think I will have to leave to work. Ireland is a good option for me."

And Emmanouil explains that the exodus of doctors from Greece is now moving at a faster pace than ever before.

"At least 100 of my former colleagues on my LinkedIn account are now working in Germany. It costs around €100,000 to train as a doctor in Athens so people can't just wait for things to get better."

The standard of Greece's medical schools and the qualifications earned by graduates have long been regarded as being amongst the best in Europe. But these days newly qualified doctors who do get work in Greece can expect to earn just €1,000 a month and pay high rates of tax.

Giorgos Patoulis, president of the Medical Association of Athens, told me: "Recruitment opportunities have come to a standstill in the public sector. The Greek people have to suffer due to financial poverty and, as a result, the private medical sector is also suffering. Furthermore 11.5pc of doctors are unemployed and 16pc are under-employed."

And he added: "Since 2010 the majority of doctors leaving the country are highly qualified medical personnel. Even though there is a large number of unemployed doctors, the healthcare system is crumbling because there is a lack of medical staff, needed by the hospitals, in order to ensure their efficient operation."

Highly critical of austerity measures imposed by the Troika and their devastating impact on the healthcare system, Mr Patoulis hopes that one day the doctors who are leaving will return.

The great irony of course is that while Edel Michailidou helps doctors in Greece to relocate to Ireland, Irish-trained medics are jetting off to the likes of the UK, Australia and Canada.

The Irish Medical Organization has long spoken about a chronic shortage of GPs here, there are up to 300 vacant consultant posts in the country and junior doctors are leaving in their droves. And the HSE, only last month, introduced an interim recruitment pause.

Ireland has the lowest ratio of physicians to patients in Western Europe. The average for the number of physicians per head of population in Ireland is 2.82 per 1,000 compared with the OECD average of 3.3. In Greece the figure is still 6.1.

Dr John Duddy, president of the Irish Medical Organisation, told Review that a lack of clear recruitment policy in the health service here means doctor shortages are likely to continue.

He said: "It's unprecedented that so many consultant posts are vacant across the country and it's really a shame that Ireland is no longer seen as an attractive place to work for those at that level. The recent recruitment pause imposed by the HSE and subsequent clarifications only served to complicate the entire situation and was hugely disappointing and demoralising, not just for doctors in the health service, but for all those involved in healthcare in Ireland."

The potential for Greek medics taking up positions in Ireland could well help alleviate Ireland's staff shortage problem - once recruitment pauses are lifted.

And Dr Duddy admits they would be an asset to any health service. But he added: "Recruitment abroad, though necessary, is not always ideal. It would be best if we could keep the doctors and consultants who trained here in Ireland to stay and work here."

In Athens this weekend Greek doctors will take the first steps towards a future in Irlandía and we'll be fortunate to have them amongst us.

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