The small French town of La Roche-Derrien made headlines last week when local officials announced that, after failing to recruit a new doctor, they had no other choice but to appoint a druid healer to help relieve residents of "daily aches and pains."
"Following the failure of our efforts to attract doctors to the Pays Rochois [population 5,000], we have received only one application to date, from Mr. Gwenael Trochet, a druid healer, who is offering us his services," the town wrote on its website. "We have no other solution right now to offer the public and doctors."
The story soon gained traction locally and nationally, and the mayor was quoted as saying the druid had "made a good impression" on local officials.
As it turns out, the residents of La Roche-Derrien will not be expected to convert to alternative medicine just yet. The mayor announced on Friday that the recruitment of Trochet was in fact a hoax, aimed at highlighting the very real shortage of physicians in rural areas of France.
When it announced the druid's recruitment on Tuesday, the town said that it had exhausted all other options, after advertising extensively and fruitlessly for a doctor through classified ads and posters.
Officials in La Roche-Derrien went to great lengths to convince the world they had recruited a bona fide druid. Druid Trochet — who was played by an actor — had a significant online presence, including video tutorials on how to channel ancestral energy from moss-covered river stones.
"We tried a humorous tone, to make a bit of a joke... but it's [a] very serious [issue]," La Roche-Derrien mayor Jean-Louis Even, told French radio channel Europe 1.
There are only two doctors for the area's 5,000 residents, and one of them is close to retirement. Located in the western French region of Brittany, La Roche-Derrien is one of France's 192 so-called "medical deserts" — areas where the authorities have failed to find successors for retiring doctors.
The estimated 2.5 million people who live in these areas are finding it more and more difficult to access adequate health care. In some villages, the situation is so dire that doctors are offering up their practices for free to young physicians willing to relocate to their area.
Officials in these regions increasingly rely on headhunters, who can charge up to 35,000 euros ($40,000) to recruit new health professionals. Headhunters offer a full range of services, from simply providing resumes to organizing the resettlement of foreign doctors and their families, including setting up French lessons for them. Some headhunters also promise to find a replacement if their candidate decides not to stick it out in rural France.
"We have enough doctors in France to fill these vacant positions," explained Sophie Leroy, co-founder of ARIME, a company that facilitates the resettlement of European doctors in France. "The problem is that doctors would rather move to big cities and around major health centers," she said.
Leroy explained that while authorities in France were investing heavily in new hospitals and new health centers, the country was not doing enough to replace outgoing staff.
Leroy explained that many of the medical recruits relocated by her group come from countries where wages are lower than in France. Medical professionals, she said, relocate mainly from southern Europe, including countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and Eastern Europe, including countries like Romania and Bulgaria.
But according to Leroy, many French towns are inexperienced when it comes to recruitment, and are weary about using headhunters.
"Our main clients are hospitals, all across France," Leroy told VICE News. These clients will happily pay 18,000 euros to recruit a new nurse, radiologist or cardiologist. Unlike other headhunters, ARIME does not guarantee that it will replace candidates who change their minds once they have relocated. "We're not replacing pipes or machines," said Leroy. "I can't guarantee a human being."
To address the issue of medical deserts, France's health ministry introduced in December 2012 its "Pacte Territoire-Santé" [Health Territory Pact] — an initiative to encourage young doctors to relocate to rural areas. The government plans to have more than 1,000 health establishments up and running in these areas by 2017. On Thursday, the government announced a 10 million euro investment as part of a major plan to improve regional hospitals.
But the mayor of La Roche-Derrien says his town is running out of time. "We have a population that is defenseless when it comes to health care, and that opens the door to all kinds of charlatans," he said on Friday.
France's doctor shortage was highlighted earlier this month when the trial of Dutch dentist Mark Van Nierop opened in the central town of Nevers. Van Nierop relocated to the small French town of Château Chinon in 2008 to replace a retiring dentist. In 2012, he was accused of mutilating and swindling more than 120 of his former patients.
Van Nierop's former patients have requested that the authorities systematically check the qualifications of all candidates and assess their past experience before allowing them to practice in France.
Speaking to VICE News Friday, a spokesperson for the town hall said that, despite the attention garnered by the town's media stunt, no doctor — foreign or domestic — has come forward yet.
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