This is the first study of its kind in Romania, aiming to provide an in-depth analysis of prospective physician migration, with a particular emphasis on the attitudes and practices undertaken by medical graduates in relation to choosing a career abroad.
In this study, 84.7% of the respondents are considering to seek employment abroad after graduation. The total percentage of students that are considering emigration (84.7%) is higher than in other Eastern European countries. For comparison, Polish students estimated the likelihood of emigration to be around 50% . 60% of medical residents from Lithuania stated that they intended to emigrate, 15% of them permanently , and only 45% of the Czech physicians are contemplating emigration . One third of the final year medical students from Croatia reported their willingness to permanently leave the country in search of employment elsewhere . In 2004, surveys conducted in Central and Eastern Europe found that 10.4% of Polish, 15.6% of Czech, and as many as 24.7% of Hungarian physicians contemplated migration . Interestingly, these forecasts often seem to overestimate the true rate of emigration, as joining the EU was rarely associated with a percentage of emigrated physicians higher than 3% .
Regarding the Romanian sample, female alumni made up the majority of our sample. This is due to the fact that a higher number of female students are enrolled for medical studies. The top destination choice among those who wish to emigrate is Germany (with 34.1%). Among reasons for pursuing a career abroad, the mean score for “higher wage than in Romania” was most notable. There were no gender or marital status differences in correlation with the importance of a better payment abroad. In Romania, public health sector wages represent, on average, around 15% of the levels typically paid in the old EU member states, and even if differences in the living cost are taken into account, migration provides an attractive financial gain .
Other reasons for migration included disagreement with the Romanian healthcare and residency system, as well as better prospective quality of life abroad. In the past few years, the tradition of Romanian informal, “under-the-table” payments offered by patients to doctors and nurses has been highlighted in the media in a manner that vilifies the medical professions and this bad press is seen as a further possible reason for dissatisfactions and consequently for the migration of young doctors .
In our study, practice preferences upon graduation indicate that about 33% of the medical alumni desire to practice exclusively in the public sector rather than the private sector (10.1%). Another 56.8% intend to work simultaneously in a public hospital setting and private practice. These preferences are expressed in the context of a constant decline of number of doctors practicing in Romanian public hospitals. The public hospitals present the number of doctors decreasing from 20 648 in 2011, to 14 487 in 2012, and to 13 521 doctors in 2014 . The main reason for health professionals to stay in the public sector may be for future training, academic tenure, and gaining experience before joining the private sector.
Loss at the societal level, caused by physicians’ migration for work, must be understood in the wider context of the loss of an educated professional resource for which the costs for qualification are very high. The state invests in the education of a physician for a longer period of time and the costs are much higher than for other professions. Not to mention the fact that doctors and nurses are not easily replaceable. The direct, average, costs for the training of a physician are around 6660 Euros for undergraduate education and 4660 Euros for specialty training . Theoretically, such a financial burden in a public educational system brings a serious issue of concern regarding the role of the state to damper the migration flow of health professionals.
At the public policy levels, the economic crisis and the lack of efficiency of the Romanian Administration have generated negative effects on the Romanian society. The massive white gown migration is a phenomenon new to Romania, and this type of migration is very different from the migration of unskilled workers. The long-term effects of this migration are not known yet, but might affect many people, especially the communities in small towns and rural areas, where poverty rates can be twice as high as in urban areas and where they do not have immediate access to a full time medical assistant/nurse or a doctor .
Physicians’ migration for work can also turn into permanent migration much easier than previous waves of Romanian migration: as the doctors have better wages than unqualified workers and it is much easier for them to bring their family along. Therefore, losing 1000 doctors per years is a lot when comparing this number to the total number of doctors in Romania (39 000 in total and 13 521 working in the hospitals in 2014) . This number raises serious questions regarding a possible national vulnerability caused by the emigration of Romanian health workers to the developed countries in Western Europe.
There are three main arguments used by physicians in favor of migration: low salary, the lack of social status and the continuous deterioration of the public perception, constant lack of government interest for investment, and appropriate public policies in the healthcare sector. A large number of the students who have participated in the study have already started preparing for emigration, 21.7% of those who wished to migrate had already performed at least one Erasmus mobility in their country of choice, 44.5% have been enrolled in a language course, and 42.7% have searched for jobs on the Internet.
The reasons for potential emigration among graduating medical students in Romania were similar to those reported in other European countries. For instance, major reasons for leaving Lithuania were higher salary, better professional opportunities, and better quality of life , similarly to the findings among Czech physicians  and students from Poland .
From an EU labor market perspective, free mobility of doctors can be a way to balance supply and demand for health workforce. Underemployment has led Romanian health professionals to seek work elsewhere in the EU. For destination countries, free mobility can contribute to health system performance when foreign health professionals fill services gaps . In France, in 2007, 40% of newly registered anesthetists and 20% of newly registered pediatricians were EU nationals, mainly from Romania .
Returning health professionals may increase expertise in the home system when they improve their skills and qualifications abroad . From this perspective, 26.1% of the students who declare they want to stay abroad for several years and then come back to practice in Romania may prove to be an asset.
Mobility can also provide a policy stimulus to tackle workforce issues. In 2010, some 3800 publicly employed Czech doctors joined the protest movement “Thank you, we’re leaving,” threatening to collectively resign and subsequently obtained salary increases and improvements to the educational system [30, 33].
We didn’t find any statistics regarding migration of physicians, how many, where they go, what age or professional experience, and where they graduated. Romania should further strengthen the availability of health workforce data, which should cover migration issues. This would facilitate policy and decision-making in Romania. Despite a large number of medical professionals having already migrated, it is unclear whether any of them returned, from where, and where they are currently employed (public or private health sector). A centralized database for health workforce data that tracks health worker mobility would allow for better public policy decisions .
Migration is an expression of liberty and individual choice. However, the state invests in the training of medical personnel and will lose this investment if the medical students will migrate after graduation. As a policy, the government could choose to try to penalize migration or to stimulate the retention of medical personnel in the country.
The Government could propose a tax on the migration of highly skilled medical personnel (the doctors will have to work in the country a certain number of year after graduation or reimburse the cost of education). But if this tax is proposed only for medical personnel, this will create discrimination and will be rejected as non-constitutional. Additionally, such a penalty goes against the EU principle of free circulation of workforce and free movement and therefore would not stand a chance in the EU Court of Justice. An alternative option would be to develop some bilateral agreements between Romania and the destination countries to arrange for some financial compensation. Open methods of coordination currently existent within the EU would provide different ways to arrange for such an option.
So far, confronted with situation created by the migration of doctors, the first measure of the Government was to raise the medical personal remuneration by 25% (Government Emergency Ordinance nr. 35/2015) starting with 1 October 2015. The effects of this measure will satisfy only the financial problems of the doctors. Still, the Government will need to invest in the equipment of the hospitals, training of physicians, and in abolishing corruptions in the medical system .
Structural reforms in the healthcare provisions are needed in order to facilitate the retention of medical personnel. The institution of contracts to retain the new graduates for 5 years can only lead to building resentment on behalf of the medical personnel affected by this measure and to costly and time-consuming juridical battles. The results of this research suggest that the primary concern remains related to personal finances. Therefore, the measures already taken to increase the salaries of medical personnel can be included as a first step towards the desired direction.
Next to addressing individual financial security, additional measures need to be taken in order to develop a healthcare system that provides attractive career options for the personnel (current and new graduates). Structural financial investments need to include financial support regarding professional integration of young professionals, coupled with facilitating the re-building access to medical care provision in small to medium size cities, and rural areas would provide attractive work options. Extensive measures to combat vilification of the medical profession in the media could help motivate young professional towards building their career in Romania. Additional measures could also include the support for professional integration of physicians and nurses who are working abroad back into the Romanian healthcare system.
Strengths and limitations
This study has a number of strengths. Firstly, the perfect response rate (100%) decreases the likelihood of a response bias. Secondly, this is the first study describing the demographics of a large sample of graduates of a Romanian medical faculty.
The most important limitation to consider for our study is that it was restricted to just one main Romanian faculty of medicine. Although the studied alumni population is rather heterogeneous, with individuals coming from all regions of the country, it cannot predict the overall situation in Romania. This implies that further studies should be conducted on a larger scale, with other medical schools participating in the same survey, in order to minimize bias as well as to ensure a broader view of the current situation. Also, studies can be done on residents, who choose to migrate, to see the personal and professional factors that influence the decision to turn a temporary mobility for specialization in a permanent migration.
Assessing intentions, and not actual behavior, represents another limitation of this study. We were not able to identify in literature any study linking migration intention to actual migration behavior. However, even if we were to assume a less than strong association, the percentage of those intending to emigrate abroad is alarming in the general context of the actual migration of Romanian physicians.
Another limitation of the study is the deployment of quantitative data and the lack of nuance brought by qualitative data. In-depth ethnographic research could lead to a better understanding of personal drives of individuals as well as to a better understanding of the migration in the context of a globalized pressure on the health workforce to comply to new rules of the disempowerment of professionals under the pressure of the neoliberal world order.