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GPs afraid of dying out

Medical staff turned out in large numbers in Bern on Saturday Keystone

General practitioners staged a protest in the Swiss capital, Bern, on Saturday to draw attention to what they say is a profession increasingly under threat.

This content was published on April 1, 2006 - 15:45

With many GPs approaching retirement, concerns are high that there are not enough young doctors to replace them. GPs also want more of a say in health policy.

The demonstration, the first of its kind by doctors in Switzerland, was organised by five professional associations.

"It's important that politicians and the health insurances, but also the people, realise that there is a very sick patient, called family medicine," said Hansueli Späth, the head of the Swiss Association of General Medicine, one of the organisers.

Späth said dissatisfaction in the profession had been mounting over the long working hours - often up to 80 hours a week - and the high amount of administration done by doctors.

Added to this was increasing pressure to cut costs from health insurers and changes brought in by the government, such as more pressure to prescribe generic medicines.

Unattractive

Doctors say all of these factors make a career in family medicine unattractive for medical students.

Currently, the majority of the estimated 8,500-9,000 GPs in Switzerland are older than 50. Those who have reached retirement age report that it is hard to find medics to take over their practices, especially in rural areas.

A recent survey found that just ten per cent of medical students would consider family medicine as a career.

Späth says part of the problem lies in the fact that the profession has a bad image and does not get the recognition it deserves at university level.

"We want to have institutes at universities for family medicine. All over in Europe you find this but - except for one institute in Basel - not in Switzerland," he said.

More support

Medics also want more say in political questions concerning health policy and more government support for practical training.

The GPs' protest is supported by the Swiss Medical Association, which represents the entire profession.

"The situation is really quite critical because more than 60 per cent of the GPs now working in Switzerland are 53-years-old and above and that means that within 12 to 15 years all these people will retire," the association's president, Jacques de Haller, told swissinfo.

"GP training takes 12 to 15 years, so we really need to start something now so that it takes effect when it is needed. If we don't, it will just be too late."

For his part, Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, who wants to revamp the healthcare system in a bid to cut spiralling costs, told the NZZ newspaper on Friday that doctors should not be looking to the state for more support.

He said the profession should instead be liberalised, specifically by ending the system whereby doctors work under contract to health insurers.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

There are an estimated 8,500-9,000 GPs in Switzerland.
There are 28,000 doctors in the country.
80% of illnesses and accidents go through GPs.
In a recent survey, only 10% of medical students said they wanted to be a GP.
The number of specialist doctors has risen by 11% in the past 4 years.

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In brief

The demonstration took place in the Swiss capital, Bern, on Saturday in front of the parliament building. More than 10,000 people took part.

The slogan was "Pro specie rara" and GPs in their white house coats stood in the middle of parliament square, in a symbolic cage. This was to show how this "rare species" of doctor is under threat.

An hour later, a petition with more than 300,000 signatures was handed in at the parliament building.

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