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Health authority chief calls on Finns to drink less alcohol as healthcare staff shortage worsens

Hospital districts across Finland have been unable to recruit sufficient numbers of summer workers to cover staff holidays.

Hospitals are facing a difficult summer due to a shortage of healthcare workers. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Staff shortages in the social and healthcare sectors have worsened over the summer, as employers have been unable to recruit enough staff to cover holidays.

Markus Henriksson, Director General of Valvira, the supervisory authority for the social and health sectors, told Yle that the problems are "serious".

"Normally, during the summer season, operations have to be curtailed due to the holidays, but now the summer closures of units are more extensive than in previous years," Henriksson said, adding that the issues are evident across all sectors of the social and health care system.

Urgent and essential tasks will be covered, he noted, but non-urgent care is likely to see queues grow and emergency services will become more congested.

"Staff shortages will be particularly acute in the month of July. Hospitals may become overcrowded, causing inconvenience for many patients and their relatives. Health and social care staff are working quite hard at the moment," Henriksson said.

Hospital districts across the country had predicted a difficult summer, and Veli-Matti Sulander, Deputy Director General of the Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS) hospital district, described the situation as "very challenging".

"There is a significant shortage of staff. At present, there are more than 500 fewer summer staff than we would need. This has resulted in us having to close a very significant number of hospital beds," Sulander said.

He added that the shortage also has an impact on patient safety.

"Congestion is always a patient safety risk to some extent, especially in the emergency department. Waiting times are getting longer and that is a challenge," Sulander noted.

The situation is similar in the Southwest Finland hospital district, with director Petri Virolainen telling Yle that the staff shortage is a lot worse this year than in previous summers.

"We are generally able to treat urgent patients without any problems, but the queues for non-urgent patients are growing even longer. It's something that will only really become apparent in the coming weeks or months," Virolainen said, adding that staff have been stretched "beyond belief" to get all patients treated during peak periods.

"We can just about manage in a normal situation, but if there were an exceptional situation, we would be in real trouble," he said.

Henriksson: Drinking less alcohol would help

According to Markus Henriksson, Director General of Valvira, there are several reasons for the problems.

In addition to the long-standing shortage of workers in the social and healthcare sectors, the situation has been exacerbated by absenteeism caused by Covid infections and the industrial action that started in the spring.

The nursing unions' ban on overtime and shift changes is still in force in the municipal sector, but during the summer nurses can work overtime if they so wish and also change shifts. However, the employer cannot impose them.

In addition, the recent heatwave, the return of large public events and increased alcohol consumption are reflected in increased workloads in the emergency services and for paramedics.

Henriksson said he hopes that people will reduce the burden on social and healthcare services by drinking alcohol in moderation during the summer.

"If citizens could be careful with alcohol and other intoxicants, it would dramatically benefit the social and health services and their patients and staff," Henriksson said.