Denmark's hospitals suffer staff shortages

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 16 April 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:1000
  1. M Dolley

    Hospitals in Denmark are having to close beds or cancel operations because of a shortage of nurses, who are taking time off to look after their children or to study under a popular new scheme. The situation is complicated by the fact that they have to give only one month's notice.

    Workers staying at home to look after children under the age of 9 can receive 80% of the maximum unemployment pay for six to 12 months under the scheme, which was introduced by the government in January. The government is currently led by the Social Democrats. Similar benefits apply for study leave and sabbaticals. The intention is to tackle the country's high unemployment rate - 12.5% - by encouraging job rotation. The hope is that replacement workers will be hired from the dole queue.

    About 25 000 people - or 1% of the workforce - had been expected to use the scheme in the first year, but its success has already far outstripped expectations. Almost 35 000 applications had been processed by the end of March. Most came from women: more than 27 000 people wanted parental leave

    Nursing has been one of the occupations most affected, with almost 2000 of Denmark's 49 000 nurses now on leave of crunch has come over finding suitable replacements, and the resulting shortage of nurses has hit intensive care and surgical units particularly hard. For example, one quarter of the beds in the intensive care unit in Denmark's third largest city, Odence, have been shut. More than one third of its 69 staff are missing: 14 nurses have taken leave, and 13 jobs are unfilled.

    Nurses in the neurology department of a leading hospital in Copenhagen, Bispebjerg, are all threatening to resign by May, when they expect conditions to be unbearable with more than half their number on leave. The hospital is one of many trying to plug the gap by recruiting more nurses from Sweden, where there is high unemployment and pay is lower than that in Denmark.

    The Danish Nurses' Council says that the leave scheme has exacerbated an existing shortage of qualified nurses. Both the Danish hospital employers' association and the Conservative and Liberal opposition have been lobbying for nursing and other essential services - such as firefighting - to be made exempt from the scheme.

    So far, only a few doctors have taken leave. Possible reasons may be that, because of their higher pay, they stand to lose more financially and they find it harder to take time off and complete their hospital training.

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