Serbia's low-cost health-care system breeds corruption (News Feature)
By Boris Babic Feb 10, 2011, 16:51 GMT
Belgrade - Serbia's poorly paid medical professionals are threatening to go on strike next week for higher wages, but their demands are unlikely to win much sympathy from the public, which perceives them as corrupt and uncaring.
It's widely agreed that the country's health-care system is in need of a thorough overhaul. Nominally free and financed through an inefficient pension fund, it can neither pay medical workers a living wage nor provide adequate services for patients.
To make ends meet, doctors routinely demand bribes to perform the most basic procedures. But there's no guarantee that corruption will end if the doctors get a pay hike.
As it is, they're having trouble organizing themselves, with several feuding unions representing health-care professionals. They have been unable to agree on a list of conditions, let alone on what form their protests should take.
One of the unions is threatening to strike on Monday if it doesn't get a wage hike, while others say they will give the government more time to respond. They are seeking a pay rise of as much as 21 per cent.
Wednesday, some workers in state-run medical institutions held a half-hour warning strike.
By any measure, Serbian health-care professionals are paid miserably. A specialist makes about 60,000 dinars per month (790 dollars), and a nurse in a clinic makes 35,000 dinars.
The average monthly salary in Serbia is 30,000 dinars.
But doctors in Serbia and their demands command little sympathy. Polls invariably rank their profession among the country's most corrupt.
The timing of the doctors' labour action could hardly be less propitious. Just this week, two surgeons in a Belgrade clinic were arrested on charges they extorted 3,000 euros (4,100 dollars) to operate on a critically ill woman.
'We can do little to stop corruption,' Djordje Bajec, the director of the clinic told the daily Blic. 'We can only keep repeating to citizens that they should never offer money to doctors who are paid to do their job.'
Doctors typically ask patients for bribes to move them ahead of others awaiting a procedure. The money is often funneled to their private clinics, where they work in the afternoons.
Some of these clinics, operating out of tiny apartments, are unlicensed and unsafe.
Distrust of doctors has been fuelled by the failure of doctors to police their own. The doctors' guild refused to condemn two especially notorious cases involving the death of 3-year-old girl and a 19-year-old woman.
During the operation on the 3-year-old died, a tank that should have contained oxygen was empty. In the second case, doctors gave the young woman a fatal combination of anesthetics because they failed to perform pre-operation testing.
Lawsuits against the doctors involved are still ongoing.
Dragan Cvetic, who heads one of the medical unions, blamed low wages for corruption.
'It is not enough to arrest corrupt doctors. Corruption can be prevented with better salaries for doctors,' he told the daily Danas.
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