Polish junior doctors at Warsaw’s Pediatric Hospital are about to enter their fifth week of their hunger strike, protesting the lack of government healthcare funding and incredibly long hours with low pay. Hunger strikes are dangerous if carried out over a long period of time, causing deficits of important electrolytes, a loss of fat and muscle mass, severe dizziness, sluggishness, and a low heart rate. During the Polish hunger strike, only 20 junior doctors are allowed to strike at one time, while the rest volunteer their time to regularly check the 20 participants. When one junior doctor is deemed too medically unstable to continue striking, they are “disqualified” from the strike and replaced by another volunteer. Despite the risks involved, the junior doctors are adamant in fasting to make their voices heard.
The protesting junior doctors argue that the Polish government does not spend nearly enough on healthcare, allocating only 4.4% of Poland’s GDP to health-related services. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and intergovernmental organization that provides economic facts on states world-wide, Poland is one of the countries that allocates the least resources towards healthcare, only better than Turkey (3.4%) and Latvia (3.2%). Often, there are months-long waiting lists for medical procedures and medicine, and according to the doctors, unnecessary bureaucratic red tape caused by a lack of medical resources. The junior doctors in Poland are calling for a steady increase of up to 6.8% of GDP spending on healthcare by 2021, but the Polish government is reluctant to do so. Additionally, while Polish junior doctors must pass seven years of schooling and working in hospital wards, they may only expect to make an estimated 1,833 zloty a month ($500). In Warsaw, a monthly salary of 1,833 zloty a month is only enough to cover the rent of a small apartment, and little else. In comparison, a British junior doctor expects, on average, £1,910 a month ($2,500).
The hunger strikes have worked well so far, allowing the doctors to have an open debate with politicians who previously ignored their requests. Despite these discussions, it is difficult to find common ground between the conservative Polish government and the protesters.
Polish Health Minister Konstanty Radziwill had met with the doctors in mid-October, promising an increase of healthcare spending to 6% of the Polish GDP by 2025; however, in the same breath he condemned the hunger strike, arguing that “one should not toy with the health and life of patients.” Further, Radziwill stated at a press conference that the expectations of doubling the average national wage for young doctors to match the wages of their counterparts in England are “simply unrealistic… in a country which is, well, not the wealthiest country in the world.”
The doctors are unhappy with his response, stating that he did not provide substantial evidence of actual intent to increase spending. Dr. Joanna Matecka declared Radziwill’s proposal unrealistic, and speaking on behalf of the protesters, accused the government of “not treating us seriously, they are not outlining any realistic proposals; they just want us to stop the hunger strike.”
Additionally, Doctor Patrycja Pieczka, who has been a participant in the hunger strikes, argues that they have not neglected their patients at all, but have been using their vacation time to protest, “I don’t want this to impact my patients. I will simply not get a vacation anytime soon.”
Doctor Malgorzata Koziel adds that they have been protesting for the past two years, “[We have been] reaching out to the government, highlighting the dire state of the health service, but with no response. So we feel there is no option but to resort to a hunger strike.”
Although Polish doctors and junior doctors are loyal to their patients, it is inevitable that they will begin to leave the country if wages and working conditions do not increase. If Poland wishes to stop the impending “brain drain” phenomena from occurring, doctors must be given a pay raise. Otherwise, Poland’s already struggling economy and healthcare system may face another hit, to the further detriment of its people.