The World Health Organization (WHO) believes Europe has a “ticking timebomb” to address when it comes to a shortage of health workers.
The European Union had more than 1.82 million medical practitioners in 2021 – maintaining a stellar physician-to-population ratio – amidst a looming threat of health worker crisis.
According to the latest statistics released by Eurostat, the continent also had an average of 136 physiotherapists for 100,000 inhabitants.
The average is significantly better compared to other regions of the world, although there are still stark differences across the 27-member bloc. For example there are 234 per 100,000 inhabitants in Germany to just 12.7 in Romania.
The numbers come amidst multiple suggestions of a looming health worker shortage, especially in the EU’s eastern countries.
A report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in September 2022 highlighted the number of ageing healthcare workers and called a surge in chronic diseases resulting in increased demand for healthcare as a “ticking timebomb”.
In 13 out of 44 countries included in the report, more than 40 per cent of doctors were above the age of 55 – posing a threat to the sustainability of the workforce.
Despite relatively stable figures, insufficient recruitment and lack of retention could worsen the situation amidst an ageing workforce, the report suggested.
“We cannot wait any longer to address the pressing challenges facing our health workforce. The health and well-being of our societies are at stake – there is simply no time to lose,” Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe said in March.
Austria has the highest number of practising physicians
Among EU member states, Austria had 540 practising physicians per 100,000 people, the best ratio in the bloc.
Practising physicians involve health care professionals who are directly providing services to patients during the period of counting.
Although Germany consisted of more than 20 per cent of the EU’s total physicians in absolute terms, its relatively large population size meant the ratio was not more than its neighbours.
By contrast, France, Belgium, and Hungary made up for the lowest ratios, falling behind the 350-per-100,000 inhabitants mark.
Italy leads the number of license holders – but what is wrong?
Italy, compared to other EU member states whose count was included in the latest release, had the highest number of licensed physicians, followed by Sweden and Germany.
That figure, however, does not translate when it comes to the “actual” practising medical professionals.
Although the number of registered healthcare professionals soars to more than 700 per 100,000 inhabitants in Italy, an increasingly ageing workforce and large emigration of doctors leave a void.
According to a 2020 study in The Lancet, 54 per cent of Italian doctors were aged 55 years or older and closer to their retirement.
Around 1,000 medical doctors were also leaving the country annually after their licenses were granted.