With 5.2 physician per 1,000 inhabitants Austria has among the highest physician density in OECD countries (OECD average 2.6). Overall, the country has 271 hospitals with a total of 45,596 physicians (data from 2017), about 54% of which work (also or primarily) in hospitals. The rate of physicians working in the outpatient setting (both those contracted and not contracted by the social health insurance) is 2.4 per 1,000 inhabitants. The number of physicians not contracted by the social health insurance has increased in recent years in ambulatory care (some of which also work in hospitals). Although Austria has the second highest physician rate in the EU, a large share of physicians is close to retirement age (55 years and older), and may thus be at a higher risk of developing severe conditions in case of infection with COVID-19.
The number of nurses in Austria has been subject to debate in recent years with regard to definitions of qualifications and their interpretation in cross-country comparisons. A new mandatory health professional’s registry was set up in 2018. However, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, compulsory registration has been suspended. This implies that professional activities in long-term care are also possible without registration until the end of the pandemic (transition after the pandemic is still to be defined). The objective of this measure has been to allow retired professionals or professionals with formal training but working in another sector to start working in long-term care during the pandemic. Also, persons without formal training as care professionals may be asked to carry out supporting activities defined in the second COVID-19 Act.
Moreover, the COVID-19 Act adapts individual roles and responsibilities of health professionals. For example, biomedical analysts do not need a physician’s referral; graduates of natural and veterinary sciences are allowed to use laboratory methods normally restricted to biomedical analysts; and non-trained caregivers are allowed to assist basic health care usually restricted to trained persons.
To sum up, the following measures have been taken to expand the current workforce in health and long-term care:
o Childcare facilities/schools remain open for children of health and care staff (critical professions)
o Reduced requirements in licensing and registration of health and care professionals
o Involvement of medical students in return for ECTS points
o Using civil service / military service to support long-term care staff
o Allowing 24-hour carers from Eastern European countries to enter Austria to ensure that people with live-in carers continue to receive care (ca. 250 carers)
o Adaptation of staffing plans in hospitals and long-term care homes (e.g. building separate teams)
o Increasing the workforce of biomedical analysts by allowing certain tasks to be carried out by others e.g. on students and retired people (planned)
o Safety measures for health care workers in private practice, including use of telemedicine
OECD and World Health Organization (2019) State of health in the EU: Austria, Country health profile 2019, available at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/state/docs/2019_chp_at_english.pdf (accessed on 7th April 2020).
Covid Act, sections 36 and 37: https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/Dokumente/BgblAuth/BGBLA_2020_I_16/BGBLA_2020_I_16.html.