On life support: can France's struggling healthcare system be saved?

·3-min read

The French healthcare system was once considered one of the best in Europe and the world. Now, however, it is facing an unprecedented crisis, especially worrying at the start of the summer, when patient numbers rise.

To take the pulse of the situation, I travelled around France to understand the causes behind this crisis and to find out the potential solutions.

"It's pretty catastrophic"

"We don’t have the adequate structure, neither the adequate conditions, nor the adequate tools, or enough staff. It's getting complicated.” That was the picture Maxime Bartolini painted for me. The young accident and emergency nurse works at the Fréjus St. Raphaël hospital, on the French Riviera. He had the look of someone who had been through a lot.

"We’ve been working at a sustained, high pace, since December," he explained.

"The closure of the secondary hospital departments at night, it’s meant we’ve had to reorganise. The ambulances are also overwhelmed. It's a danger for the patient, and we're overloaded. We do more than our duties, we help each other. We do what we can, but now we're running out of solutions, it's pretty catastrophic."

Pinna, Monica/
"We do what we can, but now we're running out of solutions, it's pretty catastrophic." says accident and emergency nurse Maxime Bartolini. - Pinna, Monica/

Fréjus St. Raphaël is the main hospital in the Var region, in Southern France. It lacks five permanent doctors, which is nothing compared to other emergency departments in the region. In Draguignan, about 30 kilometres away, the emergency unit has been closed on and off at night since October. The service needs about 20 permanent doctors to run properly. Currently, it has seven. It means the 100,000 or so residents in the area need to drive an extra 40 minutes to the next nearest hospital, which is Fréjus.

The head of the emergency room in Fréjus St. Raphaël, tells me that patients sometimes have to wait in the corridor next to other patients for up to 48 hours.

This acute lack of doctors isn't localised to popular French resorts - it is nationwide. But this healthcare crisis goes much further afield.

The pandemic has brutally exposed some of the long-standing problems facing European healthcare systems. Leaving in their droves due to exhaustion, COVID-19 has accelerated the departure of healthcare workers. There are simply more people leaving the medical profession in France right now than young doctors and nurses entering.

Radical transformation needed

This deep crisis dominated the political debate ahead of the French parliamentary elections in June. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron launched a month-long task force to try to find solutions.

Euronews
France's recently appointed Health Minister Fraçois Braun. - Euronews

I met the man heading Macron’s so-called 'flash mission', in Paris. Fraçois Braun, an emergency doctor, and head of the Samu-Urgences de France Union was appointed Health Minister soon after I filmed my report.

He is convinced the crisis facing France's accident and emergency departments is just the tip of the iceberg. If things are to work, he argues the country's healthcare system needs radical transformation.

Today, medical staff on the frontline of the pandemic demand more than simply applause. They want the means to do their job - it's literally a matter of life and death.

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