The Netherlands entered its first lockdown on 15 March 2020 – since then, the country has lived and worked under social distancing and gathering restrictions designed to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and to decrease the pressure on the healthcare sector. In spite of these restrictions, pressure on hospitals and health care workers has continued unabated for over a year. Organizations representing health care providers have called on the government, health insurance companies and other organizations involved in the delivery of care to create a post-pandemic recovery plan for the sector.
Several organizations, including the Federatie Medisch Specialisten (Federation of Medical Specialists) and the V&VN, representing nurses and other health care workers, are leading the call for a post-pandemic recovery plan. Their biggest concern: catching up on the more than 100,000 operations postponed during the pandemic. “Critical plannable care is under pressure everywhere. Procedures for patients with heart problems, cancer – people who are dying because of complications – had to be delayed. As a physician, you take that home with you,” says Peter-Paul van Benthem, chair of the FMS.
The catch-up in regular care after the pandemic has abated will put further pressure on the healthcare system. General practitioners have referred approximately two million fewer patients to specialists since the start of the pandemic, according to an analysis completed by Zorgdomein. After the pandemic ends, hospitals expect a sharp increase in specialist referrals – care that will need to be delivered in the face of decreased staffing. “We really have no idea how we are supposed to do this,” says Van Benthem. Public health officials at the Nederlandse Zorgautoriteit (Dutch Health Authority) will assist in determining exactly how much capacity the sector will need to resolve the post-pandemic treatment backlog.
Addressing the backlog of surgeries and other procedures will be made more difficult due to the increasing number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who are unable to work due to burnout and the effects of long Covid. Over the past year, the number of individuals working in the medical field diagnosed with burnout doubled. In April 2021, at least 10% of medical workers were unable to work as a result of pandemic-related burnout or because of long covid symptoms, according to the V&VN. “You actually see it everywhere. Not only in intensive care units but also in other departments; in mental health and elderly care as well as in community nursing. The damage is mental and physical. Burnouts, but also people who have long Covid and need to recover for a long time,” says Bianca Buurman of the V&VN.
To address the upcoming difficulties, organizations representing health care workers urge the government, health insurers and organizations involved in the delivery of care to work together to create a plan that will support health care workers as they recover mentally and physically from the stresses of the past year. The organizations argue that the plan must be developed and implemented before the end of the pandemic to ensure continuity of care and to prevent the coming backlog of cases from overwhelming the system and driving more health care workers out of the workforce.
Both the FMS and V&VN argue that any recovery plan must include programs to address the needs of health care workers struggling with burnout and the symptoms of long Covid. “Together, we have to determine how we can deliver catch-up care at maximum capacity in the future. But that is only possible if we also think about how we give people peace so that they can recover physically and mentally,” says Bianca Buurman.
Tamara van Ark, outgoing Minister of Public Health, Welfare and Sport, supports the creation of a recovery plan, but argues the health care sector needs to take the lead in order to ensure the concerns of health care workers are adequately addressed. Organizations representing healthcare workers agree. “Doctors and nurses really need to be at the table. They have a good idea of how we can prevent further complications and diseases as much as possible. But that is only possible if we also think about how our people can recover,” says Buurman.
Written by Lorre Luther