Danish hospitals lose nurses after summer 2021 strikes

The number of nurses at Danish hospitals has fallen following strikes last year, putting the brakes on a government plan to increase the number of nurses working in the country.

Nurses stage a walk-out at Aalborg University Hospital in September 2021
Nurses stage a walk-out at Aalborg University Hospital in September 2021, following a series of union-sanctioned strikes earlier that summer. Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

A fall of 875 in the total number of full time nurses at public hospitals was registered between the second quarter of 2021, when 36,385 were recorded, and Q4 of last year, when the number had dropped to 35,510.

The figures were published by the Danish Health Data Authority (Sundhedsdatastyrelsen).

Health Minister Magnus Heunicke recognised a link between the falloff in nurse numbers and strikes last summer during which nurses protested over pay and working conditions. A collective bargaining deal rejected by the nurses’ trade union DSR was eventually enforced by government intervention.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about Danish trade unions

“Hospitals have been extraordinarily challenged by staffing problems since the nursing conflict last summer and I therefore see this decline as unavoidable in the short term,” Heunicke said.

A lower number of nurses working at hospitals does not necessary mean that nurses have switched profession.

The nurses in question may have moved to other parts of the healthcare sector such as municipal services, GP surgeries or temp agencies.

A general shortage of nurses resulted in the government agreeing with regional health authorities in January 2020 to hire an additional 1,000 nurses by the end of 2021.

That target was achieved as early as Q2 in 2021 but the subsequent strike and falloff in the number of nurses in the public health system means that the country is once again several hundred nurses short of the target.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, Denmark had just 364 more nurses compared to 2019, the year relevant for the deal to increase staffing by 1,000.

“My aim is that we, together with regional health authorities, get back up to the 1,000 extra nurses again as soon as possible, because we need them in all parts of our health service,” Heunicke said.

The minister said that higher intake numbers on nursing degree programmes was among measures that been taken to boost numbers.

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How will Denmark’s health reform change country’s health services?

Junior doctors will spend more time in general practice during their training and 25 new local hospitals will be opened under a new health sector reform announced on Friday.

How will Denmark's health reform change country’s health services?

An agreement for the reform was presented by the government on Friday with the backing of a parliamentary majority.

The deal had been delayed with the Covid-19 crisis among the obstacles which drew out its completion.

It provides for 6.8 billion kroner of spending on the Danish health service over the next eight years, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke told media on Friday.

“We have an agreement for a health reform that will support local health services. Many parties are with us. (The deal) could not have broader support,” he said.

Parties on both sides of Denmark’s political aisle are in agreement over the deal, with Martin Geertsen, health spokesperson with the opposition Liberal (Venstre) party, calling it “a good little deal”.

“Does this agreement solve all the challenges faced by the Danish health service going forward? No. Certainly not. It’s a good little deal. It’s a step in the right direction,” Geertsen said.

The health spokesperson with the left-wing party Red Green Alliance, Peder Hvelplund, likewise characterised the reform as a small but positive step that does not solve all of the problems within the health system currently.

In an earlier version of the deal, proposed by the governing Social Democrats, up to 20 local hospitals – around the size of extended, large health centres – were proposed. The location of the centres that will be opened or built under the reform is not clear at the current time.

The new, local centres could potentially be located in former hospital premises.

The government also proposed a form of compulsory service which junior doctors would have to complete as part of their training, involving working for an experience GP. This will be undertaken as part of doctors’ studies under the terms of the reform.

This means that young doctors will spend an extra six months working at GP surgeries and spend less time at hospitals.

Earlier health proposals by the government related to additional restrictions on tobacco and alcohol sales do not form part of the agreement announced on Friday.

Negotiations over those proposals will take place separately, Heunicke said.

“Next week we will open negotiations on the remaining elements relating to prevention (of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption). It was the right thing to do to split things up because we got this broadly-supported agreement,” he said.