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Using Belarusian medical students to tackle staff shortages

A physician and an activist of the independent healthcare workers’ union shared an express comment with “Salidarnasts” on the Government’s “extra work project” for students of medical universities.

Станіслаў Салавей // photo - Gazetaby
Станіслаў Салавей // photo - Gazetaby

This summer, medical university students are to go to the towns of Polatsk and Navapolatsk to work there as part of the labour project “Medicus”. From July 1 till August 26, the students shall toil as orderlies, nurses, and physicians. There are even plans to send regular workers of the healthcare institutions involved on holidays during this “labour campaign”.

How much do Belarusian students need such a “labour project”? “Salidarnast” has discussed this issue with a Belarusian medical doctor who is an activist of the independent healthcare workers’ union.

“Here we have a somewhat ambiguously presented news; I mean students are supposed to work as orderlies, nurses, and physicians. Generally speaking, medical students do have the right to work as nurses after three years at the university and an internship as a nurse. Many students do that to make some extra money as their scholarships are low,” says the doctor in his express comment to “Salidarnast”. “So, an opportunity for students to earn some money is rather a good thing in our situation.”

Yet, the wages we are talking about here are, shall we say, small. They say that the students will be happy to receive “good” wages, quoting figures between 650 and 815 Belarusian Rubles. Now, is USD 250 a month indeed a good wage? Most probably, they are just unable to hire a regular healthcare worker for this kind of money and use the students to patch up the staffing gaps. I mean, this kind of project holds more benefits for the clinics involved rather than the students.

“In a way, it’s great that the students will have this extra work because it’s a good opportunity for them to learn things. But in practical terms it’s all about plugging holes that have appeared as a result of poor working conditions and low pay.”

The doctor also points out that this extra work for students should have been organized in such a way as to have no negative effect on their university studies.

“According to their curriculum, medical students have their internships in July: after the third year as a nurse, after the fourth year as a doctor in a clinic, and after the fifth as a doctor in a hospital. So, it turns out that the students involved in this labour project will have to complete their internships before July; normally, they would be given this option if they are expected to work in the university admissions committee in summer. In this case, they would complete their internships in a hand-over-fist manner in May, combining it with their studies.

“So, the Ministry of Health aims to kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand, they will use the students to plug the staffing holes, while on the other, those same students should graduate to become good specialists. But there’s also one other side to this matter as the students stand to lose in terms of the proper completion of their internships.

“As it is, they are given an opportunity to work as an orderly or a nurse to replace their internship as a doctor. But these are different things. If you, as an intern, go around with a doctor you get to see much more because nursing tasks do not distract you. It ultimately means that the quality of learning suffers.

“So,” sums up our interlocutor, “the only problems I see in this project are the loss of proper internship and the low wages.

“They openly claim that paying a person USD 250 a month is OK. A person, mind you, who is responsible for their patients’ health and life. And the corresponding attitude follows. Look, they’ve even rigged regular workers’ holiday schedules. We all agree that people do need their holidays, but here they will be just patching staffing gaps with cheap labour.”

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