HEIDELBERG, Germany — A staff shortage at the Mannheim Health Clinic is a harbinger of shortages to come at other U.S. military health clinics, officials said, especially during the annual summer turnover.

“It’s always a concern every summer,” said Phil Tegtmeier, a spokesman for the European Regional Medical Command. “We have massive turnover. All will be short for summer.”

The reason, Tegtmeier said, was because doctors, whether military or civilian, tend to be parents who rotate out in the summer, moving in tempo with the school schedule. Their replacements do the same. Add in vacation time between assignments, and doctors don’t start work at their new assignments until the end of summer.

Recent news that the Mannheim Health Clinic was short- staffed and that the clinic was asking for patients’ patience in the long wait for appointments was prompted in part by the inevitable turnover, Tegtmeier said.

But it also pointed out two other issues affecting doctor staffing in U.S. facilities in Europe: the overall shortage of Army doctors due to deployments and difficulty of hiring civilian doctors, and the special difficulty of staffing on bases slated for closure.

According to the Mannheim clinic, its usual 10 professional health care providers were down to six, with two more to leave by June. The four that left were civilian doctors, some of whom went back to the U.S. and some who moved within ERMC to clinics on enduring bases, Tegtmeier said.

Clinics recruit their own civilian doctors from the U.S.; Tegtmeier said it made sense that recruiting for those positions could be more difficult when the clinic is on a base slated to close.

But many military hospitals and clinics have faced staffing problems. The Fort Stewart, Ga., hospital saw its doctors dwindle by nearly one-third late last summer because of combat deployments, new assignments and competition from the private sector, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Nearly half of the Army’s 36 hospitals and medical centers last year failed to meet Pentagon standards for providing a doctor for routine care within a week, Margaret Tippy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Command, told the newspaper.

There are now 21 U.S. military health clinics throughout Europe. On July 15, ERMC will close two, one each in Darmstadt and Hanau. The Darmstadt clinic has already limited its services to soldiers and their family members in light of the unexpected deployment of a remaining military doctor, according to ERMC.

Before Army transformation began in Europe four years ago, some 60 U.S. primary care physicians worked throughout the command, Tegtmeier said; they now number in the mid-40s, he said, and will be reduced further.

The downsizing of Heidelberg Hospital, which becomes a health center on June 15, will further reduce the number of doctors, particularly in obstetrics, pediatrics and surgery but also in other areas, Tegtmeier said.

ERMC’s new commander, Brig. Gen. Keith Gallagher, is directing a more concentrated effort to provide Americans more referrals to local European doctors, Tegtmeier said, “because of necessity.”

Because of the shortages, some patients might have to find a primary care provider in the host nation’s health care system, a recent Army report stated.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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