French medics warn health service is on brink of collapse

Emergency room doctors and nurses have protested outside the French health ministry amid strikes at dozens of hospitals across the country as medics warned that budget cuts were leading France’s world-class health system to the brink of collapse and putting patients’ lives at risk.

In the past three months, over 50 hospital emergency rooms across France have held strike action with doctors and health workers complaining of funding cuts, a government reduction in the number of beds and a serious lack of medical staff leading to dire working conditions for emergency room staff.

Christophe Prudhomme, an emergency room doctor in Bobigny north of Paris, and a health representative for the leftwing CGT union, said: “For years, we’ve watched the cuts to the National Health Service in the UK – the NHS can be strangled fast by a government because it’s funded by general taxes, while in France it’s harder because of funding from specific social security payments. But while we have resisted for years, cuts in France now mean our system is collapsing. There is a lack of personnel. To save money, the government is reducing the number of beds and the number of doctors. There have been deaths because of it.”

He warned: “Over the past 20 years, little by little, I’ve seen the breaking of our health system. We have a very good system, but if these cuts continue, we’ll be joining the misery of the NHS and I fear people who need treatment won’t get treated.”

Linda Pillon, an emergency room nurse at a hospital in Toulon in the south, said: “Our health system was among the best in the world, but I’m afraid it’s collapsing. Today we’re fighting to stop that.”

Protesters hold a banner reading ‘Emergency service in anger’. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP
With an acute shortage of local community doctors in many rural areas as well as in small towns, France’s hospital-centred system is seeing emergency rooms increasingly called upon by a growing population. Staff say they are facing burnout and patients are at risk from the crisis in understaffing.

The centrist French president, Emmanuel Macron, has acknowledged that hospitals are struggling due to the lack of general doctors in rural areas, and the closures of clinics, as well as budget constraints.

He said last year in a speech on the future of healthcare: “Without changes, the hospital system will collapse. We need to rethink how we organise healthcare for the next 50 years.”

The health minister Agnès Buzyn – herself a former hospital doctor – is presenting a new healthcare policy to parliament this month arguing for streamlining of hospital management as well as general care, and promising to renovate dilapidated hospital emergency room buildings and offer more bonuses. She said: “We have to respond to the emergency in areas that feel abandoned.”

But healthcare unions berated her for criticising some emergency room staff in Paris when they recently called in sick as a form of protest. Unions are calling for an end to budget cuts and an end to the policy of reducing the number of beds. They say there must be an immediate recruitment drive for nurses.

Abdel Dougha, is a healthcare assistant who works nights in the emergency room as Paris’s Saint-Antoine hospital, which has seen continual strike action since March. “There needs to be a recognition of what we do,” he said. “The government is only just starting to listen when we’ve been alerting them to this crisis for so long.”