Balkan Insight / Serbian Doctor Finds Hospital Voluntary Work More Rewarding

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Ognjen Djurmaz, a General Practitioner at a private hospital in Belgrade stands outside a cafe near where he works. Photo: Paul Rochford

This article was published in Balkan Insight on May 1, 2019.

by Paul Rochford

“Some ambitious young medics in Serbia, pushed into the private sector out of necessity, are working at weekends as volunteers in public hospitals to express their true vocation.”

There is something very good about helping children,” says Ognjen Djurmaz with a bright smile, as he sits down for a coffee after a long shift the night before.

When he talks about his job, his face lights up and he sits up a bit taller.

“Waking up in the morning, I would sing to myself because I knew I was going to a place where I belonged,” he says, referring to his volunteer work at the public University Children’s Hospital in Belgrade.

During his working hours, 27-year-old Djurmaz is a general practitioner at a private hospital in Belgrade, taking calls or triaging emergency room patients.

But in his free time, he can be found doing chores without pay with his residency mentor at the public hospital, working with children and their parents, or assisting with research.

With the lack of jobs generally in Serbia, and with the threat of having to follow the brain drain abroad – which he says is a terrifying trend among his younger colleagues – Djurmaz has turned to working in the private sector. A sustainable salary may be guaranteed there, but it is not where he intends to stay.

Nemanja Saranovic, one of his co-workers and friends at the private hospital, says he understands why Djurmaz prefers the public sector. He feels the same pull himself.

“Ognjen would rather be working at the public hospital; everyone would, it’s better there,” he says.

This seems to be the consensus among Belgrade’s private sector medics for many reasons. They range from the quality of the training to the public accessibility to the institution.

“But”, Saranovic adds of Djurmaz, “ he also loves to work with children and wants to specialize in pediatrics.”

This conviction is founded on his own life – or rather near-death – experience.

When he was 13 years old, Djurmaz was taken to the University Children’s Hospital for kidney surgery. That operation saved his life.

Ever since then, he has had a desire to give other children the excellent, indiscriminate care he received as a child, by becoming a pediatrician.

Saranovic says Djurmaz hopes to eventually get a job working at the public hospital but can’t dedicate that much of his time to volunteer work.

The University Children’s Hospital, Belgrade, where Djurmaz volunteers. Photo: Paul Rochford

His schedule with the private hospital is demanding, requiring five or six eight-hour shifts each week, leaving only time for sleep and little else.

Despite that workload, when he finds himself on a weekend, he volunteers. Relating to the dilemma himself, Saranovic says: “Like so many others, I simply can’t afford to volunteer.”

“If a young doctor tells you they always wanted to work in the private sector, they’re lying,” Djurmaz insists.

“Working in the private sector is mostly about money. The older generation of doctors have come from the public sector to work in private hospitals because they can triple or quadruple the amount of money they would make at public hospitals.”

Despite the appeal of the money in the private sector, Djurmaz is much more comfortable with the public system.

To him, medicine is not primarily about money but about doing something good for others.

“Working in the public sector is more important. [Public hospitals] are open to all. You can heal everyone who comes through the doors, whether they have the insurance money or not,” he explains.

He also says working in the public hospital is also a more relaxed and medically focused environment.

“In the private hospital, when people with expensive insurance come, you must make sure they are comfortable – as if they’d come to their own home to be treated,” he says.

Today, Djurmaz reflects on his busy schedule. “It’s worth it, doing both,” he concludes.