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A doctor turned journalist in Germany has spilled the beans on his former profession—in a book serialised by a popular newspaper with a readership of millions. Annette Tuffs records the fallout
The trains are often late and dirty, the post has become unreliable, and teachers tend to be lazy. In Germany it has become a profitable sport to collect outrageous anecdotes about public institutions and publish them in cheap paperback form. Now it's the turn of the medical profession.
First there was the Bahnhasserbuch (Railways Hate Book) published for readers wanting to vent their fury about the train service, then Posthasserbuch (Post Hate Book) as well as Lehrerhasserbuch (Teacher Hate Book) for frustrated parents and pupils. A few weeks ago Das Ärztehasserbuch: Ein Insider packt aus (Doctor Hate Book—An Insider Reveals the Truth) appeared—240 pages of the personal experiences of Werner Bartens, a 40 year old doctor and journalist, with dozens of stories about how doctors don't communicate with their patients, sneer at them, and generally treat them without dignity.
His stories tell of patients being left in closets to die, patients being called “AOK swines” (AOK is the largest but poorest German health insurance company), nuns who have had radiography being left naked in hospital corridors, and patients being given humiliating diagnoses—for example, a loose pelvic floor compared to a hammock.
In recent weeks Bartens has been doing the rounds of all the national talk shows on German television, talking about his book. But the story really took off when Germany's top selling newspaper, the tabloid Bild, serialised excerpts from the book under the headline “The sinister truth about our doctors—how appallingly patients are treated.”
Medical officials reacted immediately. The German Medical Association, preparing for its annual conference in Berlin, spoke of yet another “dirty media campaign against doctors” and feared that German medical students would turn away from clinical work. Already about a third of medical students and young doctors in Germany leave medicine. The Hospital Doctors Association spoke up for its 300000 doctors “who give their best every day” and pointed out that the medical profession always ranks as the most esteemed in Germany.
Today Bartens is a successful journalist and author working for the national newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. He isn't a whistleblower as such, because he left clinical practice many years ago. This book is also something of a lengthy explanation for his decision not to carry on with medicine; his love-hate relationship with medicine simmers away throughout it. Most of the episodes he describes, he says, he witnessed himself.
Some valuable observations do emerge from the 200 pages of horrifying experiences, although these aren't the ones that have captured the public's imagination. Bartens urges his former colleagues to listen to their patients and to think foremost of the patients and not of the costs.
One small chapter discusses the fundamental faults of the German health and university systems—of a system where medical students aren't taught how to communicate with their patients and of a career structure that favours those who excel in publishing scientific papers but who fail to talk to their patients.
But because Bartens decided to publish his book in the “hate” series and consented to its being sensationalised in Bild, the analysis and constructive suggestions have been lost.
How was the book received by ordinary German doctors and the public? About a third of the responses to him from doctors were positive, says Bartens, because they were glad that somebody was blowing the whistle. The book's publisher, Knaur, is also glad about the affirmative responses from readers and—last but not least—about the more than 100000 copies that have already been sold.
Das Ärztehasserbuch: Ein Insider packt aus by Werner Bartens is published by Knaur, at €7.95 (ISBN 978-3-426-77976-7).