New plan to oil the workings of Athens hospitals

In an ambitious drive to reduce overcrowding and boost efficiency at the capital’s state hospitals, the government yesterday heralded sweeping changes in hospital duty hours. Doctors’ initial response was cool. The Health Ministry has decided to put into effect a pilot scheme with the aim of restructuring the times during which the capital’s hospitals are on emergency duty in order to tackle the problem of overcrowding. A recent ministry study found that each day some 120 temporary beds are set up in the corridors of Athens’s five main hospitals in order to treat emergency patients. At the same time, it was found that the rest of the capital’s hospitals have 700 empty beds. Currently, hospitals are on 24-hour duty once every four days. The new plan proposes to break up «on-duty» hours into two shifts. The first, morning cycle, will be from 8 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. and the second from 2.30 p.m. to 8 a.m. The intention is that, apart from hospitals that have been on duty through the night, all major hospitals in the Athens area will be able to receive patients for emergency treatment between 8 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. every day. The Health Ministry says that this will result in 14 hospitals being available for emergencies during these hours, which it says are the busiest, as opposed to the five that are currently on duty every morning. Hospitals that have just had an evening shift will not treat urgent cases during the morning shift. (First reports did not indicate how often hospitals would do the evening emergency shift.) The new proposal calls for two ambulances to be on standby at each off-duty hospital in order to transfer patients to other hospitals that are on duty. The ministry’s proposals also calls for the formation of a five-member team made up of hospital administrators and department representatives to organize and oversee the smooth running of the system. Deputy Health Minister Thanassis Yiannopoulos said that a three-man panel would be set up at the ministry to inspect the hospitals and check on how the new schedule was working. Hospital doctors said the new plan would confuse patients and argued that the Health Ministry would need to invest in the capital’s hospitals and staff in order to carry through the reforms successfully. «There needs to be a plan, organization, consent and, above all, money,» said Vassilis Laopodis, president of the Federation of Hospital Doctors of Greece (OENGE). He added that the government’s plan to introduce an across-the-board morning emergency shift would increase each hospital’s operating costs by 10 percent. Doctors asked the government to give more time for discussions in order to find a scheme that met patients’ needs. Laopodis said he doubted how realistic it was for patients to be transferred between hospitals, adding that a similar overall plan had been employed between 1990 and 1993 and failed.