Romania hoping for Brexit healthcare dividend

Mihaela RODINA
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Romania experienced an exodus of doctors after it joined the EU in 2007 - but it appears Brexit is reversing that trend

Romania experienced an exodus of doctors after it joined the EU in 2007 - but it appears Brexit is reversing that trend (AFP Photo/Daniel MIHAILESCU)

Bucharest (AFP) - In contrast to most EU countries, there's hope in Romania for at least one positive side-effect from Brexit -- health workers returning from the UK or not leaving home, which could alleviate the crippling labour shortage in the country's hospitals.

"I thought I would be more useful in Romania," says 37-year-old neurosurgeon Horatiu Ioani, who left Britain two years ago as the torturous process of leaving the EU was still in its early days.

He had worked in British hospitals for eight years and since returning to Romania has been performing complex operations at Bucharest's Colentina hospital.

Ioani tells AFP that among his younger colleagues "discussions about leaving are less frequent than before".

Medical student Catalina Bamford agrees.

"Lots of people from my generation have decided to come back to Romania," says the 23-year-old, adding that many see signs of improving career prospects at home.

In recent years Romania has experienced an exodus of doctors and nurses, particularly after its entry into the European Union in 2007.

Since then, more than 14,000 healthcare workers have left for other parts of the bloc in search of higher wages and better living conditions as well as higher standards of practice.

And for now, many of those in the UK are waiting to see how the Brexit situation develops before deciding whether to move back to Romania.

- Healthcare deserts -

Alongside France, Britain has up to now been the go-to destination for those choosing to leave. There are 4,500 Romanian doctors practising there, according to Gheorghe Borcean, president of Romania's medical association.

The exodus means their home country, already struggling with dilapidated healthcare infrastructure, has to make do with one of the lowest doctor-patient ratios in the EU, with barely 58,000 clinicians caring for a population of 19 million.

Moreover, those who have stayed behind are concentrated in urban centres, leaving swathes of the country virtually deserted when it comes to medical care, says Borcean.

Mariana Iancu, director of the hospital in the eastern town of Slobozia, concurs that "our biggest problem is lack of doctors".

She currently has 138 doctors on her staff -- not counting around 20 more who are officially retired but continue working -- but needs 40 more.

Recently however she has been cheered by several young doctors enquiring about job opportunities.

As recently as 2016, 80 percent of medical students said they wanted to leave Romania on graduating, but since then the exodus has abated, says Borcean.

- 'Brexit won't affect me'

Still, not all of those who left Romania for the UK are packing their bags to come home.

Nurse Adriana Silisteanu, who has been working in London for 10 years, worries that Brexit might revive the anti-migrant atmosphere she remembers in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU.

Anti-immigration rhetoric played a key part in the referendum campaign and official figures showed a spike in hate crimes in the run-up to the vote and just afterwards.

All the same, Silisteanu thinks this will be a passing phenomenon and says that in England, "healthcare workers are appreciated as people who are prepared to make sacrifices for the good of other people".

In Romania, by contrast, young nurses "don't even have the right to an opinion," she says.

Not to mention having to turn a blind eye to the corruption she claims still plagues the sector.

"I never accepted bribes from patients. But if I went back I would have to change my behaviour to fit in," Silisteanu says.

Borcean says he recognises that people leave Romania for a variety of reasons that go beyond pay, such as "the respect a profession attracts from society".

As for psychiatrist Andrada Golumbeanu, who works in the northern English city of Bradford, she's confident that "Brexit won't affect me".

She's convinced that the British authorities, already facing an under-staffed National Health Service with some 100,000 vacancies, will do everything they can to keep healthcare workers from the EU despite Brexit.

However, pulling in the other direction is Romania's left-wing government.

At the beginning of 2018 it tried to meet rising expectations in the sector by doubling wages in public hospitals.

That brought the average nurse's salary up to 1,200 euros ($1,340) a month and that of a specialist doctor to 4,000 euros.

This in one of the EU's poorest countries where the average wage is around 600 euros a month.

But med student Bamford warns that young practitioners won't hang around if the improvement in conditions stalls.

"If their hopes are dashed, they will definitely start leaving again," she says.