Hospitals across Belgium are struggling to cope with widespread staff shortages, inflation, and high energy costs, a recent study by Belfius Bank has found.
According to the report, Belgian hospitals are currently experiencing a "very tense" situation, one which could have "significant consequences" on their ability to continue to operate at current capacity — consequences which could even include the closure of care units.
Ominously, the report also noted that, given the enormous amount of regional and federal support afforded to hospitals during the Covid-19 crisis, the "room for manoeuvre for new [government] interventions will probably be very limited".
The report further warned that next year "promises to be even more problematic" than the current one, owing to the energy crisis and high inflation precipitated by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February this year.
According to the report, staff shortages have increased 36% compared to 2019, while worker absenteeism has risen to 9.8% — significantly greater than Belgium's average rate of absenteeism of 6.13%.
According to Christophe Happe, the Director of UNESSA, a care association based in Wallonia and Brussels, it is highly likely that these shortages are a direct consequence of staff demotivation and exhaustion induced by the high workload throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The concern about staff shortages has really accentuated since the Covid crisis," Happe said. "The staff went to the front, they were promised additional resources. But in the end, they were only compensated with exhaustion and demotivation."
Energy and inflation
In addition, high energy prices and inflation are causing significant problems for the hospital care sector, with energy costs, in particular, having risen 61% in the first part of this year compared to 2019.
"We get less than €1 million [from the government], while our energy bill has increased from €4 to €11 million per year," says Machteld Van Opstal, the Director of Human Resources at Onze Lieve Vrouwziekenhuis ('Our Lady's Hospital') in Aalst.
Similar concerns were expressed by Margot Cloet, the Managing Director of Zorgnet-Icuro, a network of Belgian care organisations.
"Two additional factors are causing unprecedented stress: energy prices and inflation," she said. "This permanent turmoil around the financial situation is killing the hospitals and is having detrimental consequences... The constant search for personnel weighs heavily on [hospitals'] operation, and could lead to... the closure of care units."
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Cloet added that hospitals' lack of funds could have a seriously harmful impact on their ability to make necessary investments in future care.
"[Our] ageing population and digitalisation are just calling for more investment," she said. "If this continues, hospitals will have to make difficult choices about what to do or not do in the future."
The Belfius report concurred with Cloet's assessment, claiming that "the current level of investments are certainly insufficient to prepare the Belgian hospital sector for the organisation of future care".