Sweden faces a shortage of healthcare workers as the number of quits rises after a relentless year of caring for Covid patients.
Sineva Ribeiro, president of the Swedish Association of Healthcare Professionals, says the situation is “terrible”.
Even before the first wave of the pandemic in March, there was “a shortage of specialist nurses, including in ICUs,” she said in a telephone interview.
Developments show that even countries with universal healthcare systems are now struggling to cope with the Covid crisis. This week, Stockholm’s intensive care capacity reached 99%, plunging the city into panic and prompting calls for outside help.
But even as more intensive care beds are provided, the biggest concern now is whether Sweden has enough health workers with the skills to care for the country’s sickest patients.
Ribeiro says that already in May, members of his union “warned of an untenable situation”. There are fewer qualified people available now than there were in the spring, “making it more difficult to expand intensive care capacity,” she said.
Healthcare professionals have become the heroes of the Covid crisis, often drawing cheers from grateful onlookers as they leave hospitals after long and exhausting shifts.
But increasingly, the staff are so desperate to have real time that they see resignation as the only way out, Ribeiro said. Asurveyby broadcaster TV4 showed that in 13 out of 21 regions in Sweden, resignations in the healthcare sector are now on the rise compared to a year ago, up to 500 per month.
Stockholm County Mayor Irene Svenonius says the situation is “extremely tense”. In an interview with Dagens Nyheter on Friday, she admitted that health workers were overworked and there was a need to add staff. “There is fatigue,” she said. “You can’t ignore this, so attracting more people is extremely important.”
It is not known where this additional capacity will come from. Stockholm has requested additional health personnel from the Swedish armed forces, but it is uncertain whether the military has the necessary resources. In the meantime, more than 100 staff at a children’s hospital have reportedly beenredeployedin intensive care units, meaning that children who were due for elective surgery will now be forced to wait.
Sweden, which has avoided a lockdown since the start of the pandemic, is also looking to other Nordic countries for help. Neighboring Finland said on Saturday it was ready to help by freeing up space for Swedish patients in intensive care.
The concern is that, despite scientific advances that allow doctors to better understand and treat Covid-19, there are not enough professionals left to put this knowledge into practice.
“We don’t have the staff to do it,” Ribeiro said. She described the current health care crisis in the country as “unprecedented”.
Part of the problem is that nurses in particular are increasingly less willing to submit to the hours and conditions they face during the Covid crisis, given the average pay level. Sara Nordin, formerly an assistant nurse in an intensive care unit,told Bloombergin October that she quit because she couldn’t make ends meet with the base salary of $ 33,600 a year.
“I spoke to members in August who said they would resign because it was the only way to take time and recover,” Ribeiro said. “We are seeing high rates of illness, symptoms of exhaustion, and limbs that have become infected.”
For Sweden, the danger now is that more people will die because there are not enough qualified healthcare professionals left to care for them.
“In a work environment where you are so tired, the risk of mistakes increases,” said Ribeiro. “And these mistakes can lead to the death of patients.”
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