Virus surge tests healthcare limits in Europe

Even though the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been shown to cause mild disease, family doctors are struggling to cope with the surge of people requiring tests and sick-leave certificates.

06 January 2022 | International

ASSOCIATED PRESS

MADRID

Like many people, Alberto Pérez of Madrid used a home test to discover that his headache and cold-like symptoms were caused by Covid-19.

Unable to contact his local health centre, where calls went unanswered and online appointments were booked up for the following week, he turned to a hospital emergency room for confirmation. After waiting three hours to be seen, health workers there agreed with his self-diagnosis but provided no PCR test to ensure a more reliable result.

“The nurse seeing me said that, because I had not lost my sense of taste or smell, I had the Omicron variant,” said Pérez, 39, who works as an online game developer in the Spanish capital. “But how could she know?”

Overwhelmed by people wanting tests, requiring medication or needing certificates to excuse their absence from work, primary healthcare services in Spain are operating well past their limit during the current phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

Family doctors are usually the first stop for healthcare in Europe. They and primary care nurses are viewed as vital to helping prevent sickness, keeping the pressure off hospitals and providing continuity of care.

Overwhelmed

In a country that only a few weeks ago thought itself relatively safe because more than 80% of the target population is fully vaccinated, the mounting workload in Spain has prompted doctors and nurses to cancel regular checkups for conditions other than Covid-19 and postpone visits to vulnerable people at home.

Because Pérez’s positive test had been taken at home, neither the hospital nor his local health centre would spare the much-needed resources to give him a PCR test. The PCR samples can be sequenced to determine virus variants, something nobody did with Pérez or with many thousands of other positive cases from home tests in Spain.

“You are left with the feeling that there are no resources, that they have no people, and that all they do is cover up the reality by sending people home,” Pérez said.

Caroline Berchet, a health economist at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, says primary healthcare in Europe has been underfunded and understaffed for a long time. The pandemic has simply exposed the resulting frailties in the system.

“Investment in primary healthcare is not enough across Europe” and beyond, Berchet said. In the 38 OECD member countries, which include the United States, on average only 13% of health spending in 2019 was devoted to primary health care, compared with 28% on in-patient care.

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