Medical deserts in the European Union: the practicalities of universal health coverage


Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health. Co-operators: Photographer: Aurore Martignoni European Union, 2019 Source: EC – Audiovisual Service.

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Cristina Doran, a 6th year medical student from Bucharest, Romania. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Healthcare policies in most European countries aim to ensure universal coverage for all citizens, dispensed fairly and generally covered to a large extent by means of a national insurance system. While the quality of services provided in top urban facilities is continuously improving, keeping pace with current advancements in human knowledge and the development of new technologies, a significant proportion of European citizens are left struggling in remote rural areas, where medical professionals, let alone cutting edge treatment options, are few and far between.

The issue is by no means a new one, although the term “medical deserts” – ‘déserts médicaux’ in the original French – came into widespread use during the past decade; it describes geographical areas where healthcare providers and general practitioners are severely lacking compared to the national average.

For instance, while the healthcare system of France is ranked 20th globally, almost 8% of its citizens (5.3 million people) live in areas with poor access to health professionals, all in the context of a rapidly ageing population, with growing medical needs. Despite the recent increase in the cap on doctors graduating every year (numerus clausus), the situation shows little improvement, as new graduates generally prefer to practice in more narrowly specialised fields and live in larger, dynamic urban centres, which offer more flexible schedules and a better work-life balance in the long term.

Attempts have been made to remedy the situation and to discover novel ways of covering the deficit. In the German state of Hesse, a “medibus” has been set up as a means of compensating for the 170 unfilled doctor’s posts; it consists of a complete mobile GP practice visiting 6 doctor-less villages in Western Germany per week.

However, this required an exemption from the existing ban on itinerant doctors, made in recognition of a lack of viable options. In the French town of Laval, which has the lowest number of practicing doctors per capita (255/100.000 inhabitants, against a national average of 437 and a record 1.100 in Paris), a group of senior and retired physicians have returned to practice in the Service Médical de Proximité (SMP).

Alternatively, tele-medicine remains a solution in areas which have the advantage of reliable broadband connection, although the absence of direct contact between doctor and patient poses a number of practical difficulties and may lead to diagnostic errors.

Most importantly, the shortage of doctors in rural areas has long-term disadvantages. Inadequate prevention and primary care is correlated with increased alcohol, tobacco and drug use, which in turn results in increasing rates of chronic diseases and lower overall life expectancy compared to the average city dweller.

Moreover, the shortage of medical specialists, such as OB/GYN doctors or mental health professionals, has additional detrimental effects, leading to a marked decrease in the quality of life of those affected, who may end up feeling very much left behind by a system that theoretically ensures equal, universally available healthcare.

About the author

Cristina Doran is a 6th year medical student from Bucharest, Romania. She is interested in exploring the connections between human rights theory and the field of medicine, particularly with regard to equal access and the fair distribution of resources. Excited about the potential of new scientific discoveries to educate the minds and improve the lives of a wider audience, as well as their applications in changing the standards of health care for years to come. Passionate about medical education and understanding the ideas and influences that are shaping the minds of future generations.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

EU commits €9 million in humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable families in Myanmar

Malaysia can show the way towards a holistic model for human rights

How COVID-19 is taking gaming and esports to the next level

Security Union: Commission receives mandate to start negotiating international rules for obtaining electronic evidence

Statement by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on the outcome of COP 25

We are stronger than this pandemic (COVID-19)

How we can work together in the fight against NCDs

The EU banking union needs a third pillar guaranteeing deposits

The Junior Enterprise concept, one of the best ways to develop practical skills

Antimicrobial resistance: how can an intersectoral approach between society and healthcare professionals be developed and applied?

Vulnerable young people must not be blamed & stigmatised for violent radicalisation

Overcoming the paralysis of trust management across a fractured IT landscape

Assembly President launches new initiative to purge plastics and purify oceans

EU budget 2019 approved: focus on the young, innovation and migration

Google case: A turning point in competition rules enforcement

Nicaragua ‘crisis’ still cause for concern amid murder, torture allegations: Bachelet

Should Europe be afraid of the developing world?

Poorer countries set to be ‘increasingly dependent’ on food imports, says UN food agency report

Africa’s inspiring innovators show what the future could hold

ILO: Progress on gender equality at work remains inadequate

Final preparations for DCX and IFRA Expo 2019, in association with The European Sting

Africa-Europe Alliance: European Commission committed to a sustainable African agri-food sector

Summer JADE Meeting 2015: We came curious, we left inspired

UN Human Rights chief urges Venezuela to halt grave rights violations

EU budget: Regional Development and Cohesion Policy beyond 2020

Third Facebook-Cambridge Analytica hearing: data breach prevention and cures

FROM THE FIELD: Changing world, changing families

Afghanistan can rely on international support along harrowing road to peace, and beyond

The DNA of the future retail CEO

EU to manage external borders against the will of member states; Greece to be the first target

EU: Divided they stand on immigration and Trump hurricanes

A Europe that Protects: Commission calls for continued action to eradicate trafficking in human beings

‘Global trust’ declining, ‘our world needs stepped-up global leadership’

Brexit: European Commission publishes Communication on preparing for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU

From Hangzhou to Rwanda: how Jack Ma brought Chinese e-commerce to Africa

Cameron postpones speech in Holland

In Bangladesh, COVID-19 threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis

Latin America is a mass-transit powerhouse. But it needs fine-tuning

First seat projections for the next European Parliament

GSMA Mobile 360 Series –Digital Societies, in association with The European Sting

New UN-supported farming app is cream of crop in tackling Sahel pest

The future of sustainability: recycling carbon through the power of the sun

The countries with the most satellites in space

Inequality threatening human development, new global UN report warns

‘Repeated attacks’ could close down key hospital in eastern Libya, says WHO

FROM THE FIELD: For refugees and migrants in Europe, healthcare’s essential but a challenge to find

EU approves disbursement of €500 million in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine

Assembly of European Regions @ European Business Summit 2014: Made in Europe – Made of Regions

Mental health at stake: A silent epidemic of 21st century

Pedro Sánchez: We must protect Europe, so Europe can protect its citizens

Asylum seekers in Sri Lanka fear for their safety, in wake of Easter Sunday terror attacks

After music and TV, where will the streaming revolution take us next?

Guinea-Bissau spotlights threats of organized crime, Sahel terrorism in speech to UN Assembly

UN Envoy ‘confident’ deal can be reached to avert further violence around key Yemeni port city

This one small change could transform education for millions

Those who produce food are among world’s hungriest – UN rights expert

From the boardroom to the consulting room: pharma’s role in curing gender bias

New EU rules to boost crowdfunding platforms and protect investors

How Asia could be the winner in the US and China’s Belt and Road race

Hospitals among seven health centres attacked in Syria’s north-east

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s