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Austria: healthcare system behaving like a drug addict?

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (Austrian People’s Party) and lower Austrian State Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner (Social Democrats) have both advocated a doubling of study places in medicine. Currently, Austrian universities provide 1,680 study places for new entrants every year.  There are about 45,000 physicians in Austria. Too few?

Opinions are divided on this question. The rector of the Medical University of Vienna, Markus Müller, does not believe the country needs more doctors. He pointed out that his own university admitted annually as many new entrants as the total number of students at Harvard Medical School. He reminded of the fact in the 1980s, there were warnings about an oversupply when the country had 20,000 doctors. Austria’s population increased by around 15% since. With the number of doctors having in the meantime more than doubled, Müller fails to see the point in the politicians’ initiative. What is more, he compares the healthcare system to a drug addict, who needs ever increasing doses of medical staff. The more it gets, the more it needs.

Indeed, there are signs that Austria is an exporter of doctors, at the expense of the taxpayers. Some years ago, Austria even got an exemption from the ban on quotas for medical students from other EU countries. The European Commission took into account that there were, at some universities, more foreign than Austrian students in medical education. Those would, upon graduation, leave Austria again and not be available for medical provision in the country. However, with today’s low quotas for foreign students, there are not many foreigners studying medicine in Austria anymore. Thus, the present discussion makes one wonder if it is only foreign graduates who leave Austria, but also many Austrians, who can get better working conditions in Norway or Switzerland - to use but two examples - than in their own country.

It will be interesting to observe if the discussion will continue for long. For Austria holds its next general election on 29 September.