Covid overburdening Helsinki's public health centres

Some 2,000 weekly calls go unanswered at the capital's public clinics.

Image: Mårten Lampén / Yle

With a fifth wave of the pandemic gaining pace in Finland, health centres in the capital are struggling to clear backlogs, according to Timo Lukkarinen, medical director at the City of Helsinki.

Public health authority THL on Monday reported more than 2,600 new lab-confirmed coronavirus infections over the weekend.

Helsinki's health centres operate a callback service. Lukkarinen told Yle the capital's 23 public clinics can receive up to 2,000 calls per week that staff don't have time to respond to, despite the fact that the law stipulates that nurses should evaluate next steps for callers within 36 hours.

Callers' numbers are stored in a system with nurses calling patients back. Staff are now attempting to clear call-back queues during evenings and weekends

"Physicians are using remote patient visits to clear backlogs," Lukkarinen said, adding that several viruses are circulating at the moment, such as RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus).

The city has however added more personnel to its health centres since the Covid crisis began. The network now comprises some 2,000 staff, up from 1,300 before the pandemic.

Delays and disruptions

As the pandemic wears on, people are also starting to seek treatment they had been putting off during the pandemic because of Covid concerns.

Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) has already delayed non-urgent surgeries and visits as Covid patients have increasingly required healthcare resources.

While the capital region has recorded more infections than any other area of the country throughout the pandemic, seeking care has also become more difficult in other areas of Finland.

The country now has a backlog of some 1.3 million dental visits.

Henna Virtomaa of the Finnish Dental Association said the Covid crisis has exacerbated difficulties adults already faced in accessing dental care. The association pointed out that about half of adults receive dental care through the public system, whereas the other half accesses it privately. Around a million children and youths are also covered by the public dental system.

Figures also indicate Finland recorded some 1,200 fewer cancer cases last year than during 2019, though projections forecast cancer diagnoses increasing in the country.

Lukkarinen said irreversible damage can happen if cancer treatment is not started in time.

"It's not safe to indefinitely delay all forms of care," he added.