Brain transplant appeal over AKH budget freeze

A legendary theatre actor has suggested politicians should “have their brains transplanted” at Vienna’s General Hospital (AKH) after medical staff presented plans to reduce night and weekend services.

The AKH’s works council and the Austrian Doctors’ Chamber said on Monday just 154 doctors would be at work at the hospital during the night and at weekends as of 1 February 2012. They said 172 medics were currently on duty at those times at the AKH and explained that a budget gap of nine million Euros made the reduction “a necessity which might affect patients.”

The institutions appealed to independent Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle – who is a member of the People’s Party’s (ÖVP) cabinet of ministers – to invest more in Austria’s universities. Such a step, they said, would help the Medical University of Vienna (MedUni) to make ends meet. The MedUni assigns, trains and pays the AKH’s scientific staff while the city of Vienna is in charge of issues affecting nurses, cleaners and janitors.

Otto Schenk – a popular theatre and TV actor and director – said yesterday (Tues): “I suggest that the politicians who plan to spend less on the AKH should come here to undergo brain transplantations.” Schenk earned laughs and roaring applause from hundreds of doctors and patients of the AKH for the remark he made at a public assembly of AKH employees. The gathering occurred in the main hall of the clinic which is, with a capacity of more than 2,100 beds, the largest hospital in Europe.

Schenk added he considered nine million Euros a “ridiculous amount”. The renowned film actor and author donned a white doctors’ jacket before he addressed the crowd. Schenk – a former patient of the hospital – said the government must not introduce cutbacks affecting the training and education of people who just finished university. The AKH stopped hiring doctors after the retirement of other medics already last month. Its works council said it might be forced to lower the workforce level of the clinic – where around 46,000 surgeries happen a year – in the coming years if the federal government kept refusing to increase the budget of the MedUni. Schenk said: “Sacking doctors is a disgrace.”

Freda Meissner-Blau also held a speech at yesterday’s assembly. The former head of the Austrian Green Party pointed out that “doctors of the AKH saved my life 13 years ago.” The left-wing opinion leader had to undergo a heart transplantation at the clinic which is situated in Vienna’s Alsergrund district. She said reducing night duty services would be “reckless” and called on the coalition of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the ÖVP to rethink its opinion about freezing the MedUni’s budget.

Meissner-Blau also expressed hopes that the clinic’s “highly complex” structure of the hospital’s administration and management got reformed in the expected dialogue between the federal government, Vienna SPÖ Health Councillor Sonja Wehsely and employees’ representatives. Certain changes might pose chances to raise investments and prevent a reduction of the number of doctors on duty at night and at weekends, Meissner-Blau claimed.

Niki Lauda was also expected to attend the debate at the hospital. However, the ex-Formula One (F1) pilot did not turn up. Lauda emphasised the “high quality of treatment” at the AKH in a video message screened at the gathering yesterday. The founder of budget airline FlyNiki underwent four kidney transplantations at the hospital in the course of the past decades. He also consulted AKH medics over hip joint issues.

Wehsely said earlier this week the city of Vienna had no plans to spend more on the AKH. Töchterle did not reveal whether yesterday’s controversial gathering of doctors, patients, press and celebrities would have any impact on the ongoing talks with ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter about the budget of his ministry. All federal ministries are bracing for orders to make painful cutbacks after SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann and ÖVP chairman Michael Spindelegger agreed to introduce a debt brake.

The government leaders hope to restore the state’s debt-stricken finances sooner than initially planned – and avoid a downgrade of Austria’s solvency by rating agencies which currently give the country their best-possible grade, AAA.

ÖVP Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner defended the disputed debt limit project against criticism from opposition leaders. The former Lower Austrian councillor said: “We do not want to be a permanent member of the club of indebted countries.”