GPs struggling in certain municipalities highlights uneven distribution of doctors

GPs struggling in certain municipalities highlights uneven distribution of doctors
Credit: Belga / Dirk Waem

Many municipalities in Belgium are faced with a strange problem concerning their medical general practitioners. There is currently a shortage of GPs in positions throughout the country but there are actually enough general practitioners in total in Belgium to make up the shortfall.

The reasons, according to experts, are that there is too much fragmentation of the range of doctors, the number of consultations has increased, and incoming GPs are not replacing those who are retiring.

The results of this can be seen in any medical centre around Belgium. It is no longer as easy as it used to be to get an appointment with the doctor. Many GP practices are so busy that they have to reject new patients. Those who have a permanent general practitioner have to at times wait days to be able to go for a consultation. While these used to be common problems in the big cities, smaller municipalities are now being affected as well.

Sufficient GPs

The general practitioner association Domus Medica is conducting a study to map out the problem. The study will be completed by this summer and is likely to be published in the second half of the year. "In total, we have enough GPs,” a spokesperson for the association told VRT News. "The problem lies in the fragmentation and in the confluence of a number of factors, such as the administration and the language barrier in a metropolitan environment."

"It is true that we have enough general practitioners all over Belgium, also in comparison with other countries," Ann Van den Bruel, general practitioner and professor of General Practice at KU Leuven told VRT. "But due to the fragmentation of supply, there are palpable shortages in some places while things are going smoothly elsewhere."

"A lot has changed in recent decades," added Van den Bruel. "The demand for care from the population is also different. In 15 years, the number of consultations has increased by 20%. This is partly due to the ageing population. These are all people who need to be given a place. And that's a lot more work for GPs."

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Fortunately, the number of general practitioners in training has now risen by 17%. In 2013 it was still about 6%. Yet that is not enough to fill the gap of GPs retiring by 2030, as a third of GPs are now over 65.

"The archetype of the older male GP who worked up to 80 hours a week is a thing of the past," Van den Bruel concluded. "The incoming GPs do not want to work as many hours, and work about 50 hours a week. And that's good. It is important that our GPs are not overworked and that they are energetic in their job. But that also means that, despite the increasing number of GPs, the hours are not being filled."

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