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HEALTH

Should Germany be worried about Merkel’s health after trembling spells?

Concern is growing over the Chancellor's health after a series of shaking spells. Should we be worried – and is it any of our business?

Should Germany be worried about Merkel's health after trembling spells?
Angela Merkel speaking at an event in Saxony on Monday. Photo: DPA

It's a solution that is typical of the ever-pragmatic Angela Merkel: if you're having some difficulty standing for a period of time then simply sit down.

But as Merkel remained seated for the second time during the national anthems at an official ceremony in a rare change of protocol on Tuesday, rumours and speculation over the Chancellor's health continued to go into overdrive.

The German leader has suffered three bouts of uncontrolled shaking recently while standing at public ceremonies.

It's led the country to ask a series of questions such as: what's causing the trembling? Is Merkel really okay? Should we be worried? Is it any of our business?

READ ALSO: 'I take care of my health': Merkel sits through official ceremony after trembling spells

Though she has consulted doctors about the cause and undergone tests, Merkel herself has sought to play down the episodes, insisting that she is doing “very well” and there is no need to be alarmed about her wellbeing.

Yet the Chancellor is being watched more closely than ever, perhaps indicating a change in the mood of a country that's usually obsessed with privacy. Last week, Germany's Bild newspaper claimed that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was acting “as though Angela Merkel never had three trembling attacks.”

Speculation is swirling about the cause of Merkel's condition, but the widely-read daily said three clear episodes of shaking in public were “a taboo subject” within the CDU.

The conservative party did not mention them in press reviews sent each day to its leaders, even though the “mysterious trembling crises” are “the number one topic in German media,” Bild said.

However, 60 percent of Germans believe Merkel's health is a private matter, and only 34 percent said it was a matter of public interest, according to a poll published in the Augsburger Allgemeine.

Three public episodes of shaking

Merkel's health began making headlines in mid-June after she was seen shaking during a reception for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, whom she was welcoming to her office building with military honours.

At the time it was blamed on dehydration on a hot summer's day.

READ ALSO: Merkel blames dehydration for shaking spell

Asked by a reporter about her wellbeing at a news conference about 90 minutes after the first public spell, Merkel smiled: “I've drunk at least three glasses of water and so I'm doing fine.”

But just over a week later she was seen shaking uncontrollably next to Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a ceremony to formally appoint a new Justice Minister.

The shaking went on for about two minutes, according to a DPA photographer who was present.

Her office sought to calm nerves over the second bout of trembling in as many weeks, saying the veteran leader was en route to Osaka as planned for the G20 summit. Merkel continued her packed schedule in Japan for the summit, without even cancelling a single meeting.

However, on July 10th, Merkel began shaking involuntarily for a third time as national anthems were being played at the reception of Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne.

But she attended a press conference as planned just around an hour later, telling journalists that her health was no cause for concern.

“I feel very well, there is no need to worry,” she said, adding that she was simply still in a phase of “processing” a previous shaking spell, but that “there has been progress”.

“I must now keep going with that,” added Merkel, who turns 65 on Wednesday, July 17th.

Merkel being offered a glass of water at an event where she experienced uncontrollable shaking. Photo: DPA

A source close to the government had said the cause of the repeat shaking was now psychological, with memories of the first incident provoking renewed trembling at events with similar settings.

Since then, Merkel has taken a seat at official events which seems to have helped.

So the question remains: is Merkel able to carry on with her duties? The truth is that no-one knows exactly what is wrong with Merkel at the moment but the Chancellor insists she wants to get on with things.

If Merkel did have to step down for any reason, she would be replaced by Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who would carry out her functions until parliament elected a new leader.

'Camel-like'

As Chancellor, Merkel, who is frequently called the EU's most influential leader and the most powerful woman in the world, has always enjoyed relatively robust health. She has said she will leave politics at the end of her term, in 2021.

Merkel has always guarded her private life but there have been fears over her health in the past. 

There were brief concerns in 2014 when she was taken ill during a television interview. The broadcast was interrupted when she experienced a drop in blood pressure.
 
Spokesman Seibert explained at the time the leader did not feel well for a moment, then ate and drank something and continued the interview.
 
Earlier that same year, she had fractured her pelvis while cross-country skiing in Switzerland and was ordered to cut back her schedule dramatically and stay in bed as much as possible for three weeks.
 
A keen hiker too, Merkel herself once revealed that that she has a “camel-like” ability to store energy for sleepless all-night summits.

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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

Sweden theoretically has a "healthcare guarantee" limiting your wait to see a GP to three days, and to see a consultant to three months. The reality is somewhat different. Here's what you can do if you face a long wait.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

What is Sweden’s ‘healthcare guarantee’? 

Sweden’s “National Guaranteed Access to Healthcare” or vårdgaranti, is a right to care, protected by law, that has applied in Sweden since 2005. You can see the latest version of the relevant laws here and here. Here is a summary of the guarantee on the website of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR).

Under the system, all patients are guaranteed:

  • contact with a primary care centre by phone, in-person, or by video-link on the day they seek care 
  • an appointment with a doctor, nurse, physio, or psychotherapist within three days of seeking help 
  • an appointment with a specialist doctor or consultant within 90 days of seeking help 
  • treatment or operation within 90 days, if the specialist considers this necessary 

Does the guarantee mean I have a right to treatment? 

No. If the doctor at the primary care centre, after examining you and questioning you, decides that there is no reason to refer you to a specialist doctor, they do not need to do so. 

Similarly, if the specialist doctor, after examining you, decides that no treatment is necessary, then your case is considered completed.  

Can the waiting times to see a specialist or to get treatment be longer than 90 days? 

Absolutely. In fact, they very often are. 

According to the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR), in February, 32 percent of patients had been waiting 90 days or more to see a specialist, and 43 percent of those who had seen a specialist had been waiting for treatment for more than 90 days.  

The situation in primary care was a little better, with 80 percent of those seeking care in contact with their primary care centre on the same day, and 83 percent having their case assessed by a doctor or nurse within three days. 

In addition, if you agree with your specialist doctor that you are willing to wait longer for an operation, then that wait doesn’t get counted in the statistics. 

So what can I do if I’ve been waiting longer than the guaranteed time? 

In reality, it’s actually less a guarantee than a target.

In primary care, there is no way for individual patients to complain that they have had to wait too long to see a doctor or nurse, or to cut their waiting times by citing the guarantee. 

“There’s no system for enforcing that guarantee,” says Emma Spak, the primary care doctor who doubles as section chief for SKR’s healthcare division. 

It would make no sense to set up a complaints line for those who have had to wait too long for phone contact with their primary care centre, she points out, when they could instead talk to patients seeking a primary care appointment in the first place. 

“It’s more of an incentive system for the regions,” she explains.

Every primary care unit and every region reports their waiting times to the national waiting time register, and then as part of the access agreement between SKR and the government, the regional health authorities receive a bonus if they meet their waiting times goal, or if they improve their waiting times. “That’s one way of sort of enforcing this guarantee,” she says. 

When it comes to specialist treatment, though, patients do have the right to demand to be examined or treated by an alternative specialist or hospital if they’ve had to wait longer than 90 days.

If your primary care centre issues you a referral to a specialist, and the specialist cannot then offer you an appointment within 90 days, the specialist, at the same time as offering you a later appointment, will often put you in contact with a unit at the regional health authority who will offer to find you an alternative specialist, either within the region or elsewhere in Sweden. 

The regional health authority will then have to reimburse any extra travel or hotel costs incurred by the patient.  

Similarly, if after examining you, a specialist cannot offer you treatment within 90 days, they will normally put you in contact with the same unit. 

Some regions have a phone line for people who have been waiting too long, or else you can contact your specialist or primary care centre and ask for information on seeking an alternative specialist. 

What happens if I don’t want to travel to see a specialist or get treatment? 

If your regional health authority offers you an alternative specialist, either within your region or in another region, so that you can get treated within the 90 day period, and you are unwilling to travel, then you lose your rights under the guarantee. . 

“If you’re in Gothenburg, and they say you have to go to Stockholm to get your treatment, and you say, ‘no, I want to go here, then then you’ve sort of forfeited your right, and you have to take what’s on offer,” Spak says. 

What happens if I agree with my specialist to wait longer? 

If your specialist says that they can treat you in four months, but also offers you treatment elsewhere within the guaranteed 90 days, and you choose to be treated by your specialist, then that counts as a patient choice, which will not then be counted in the statistics. 

“The specialist might say, ‘I don’t think you will get any worse for waiting two months extra, and if you wait five months, then I can make sure that you get your surgery done here, and we can make sure that you get all the aftercare and everything here as well,” Spak says. 

But these patient decisions are also counted in the statistics, and if a region sees a sharp rise in patients choosing to wait, SKR will tend to investigate. 

“If some region all of a sudden has a lot of patients choosing a longer waiting time, then we will call them and ask what’s going on here, because patients don’t tend to want to wait extra,” Spak says.  

Can I get financial compensation if I’ve been waiting too long? 

No. 

What other ways are there of speeding up the wait for treatment? 

Don’t underplay your symptoms

When drawing up their timetable for treatment and assessment, specialists will tend to give different patients different wait times depending on the urgency of their case.

For this reason, it’s important not to underplay your symptoms when visiting a primary care doctor, as they will tend to include a few lines on the urgency of your case when they write their referral. 

Stress your flexibility 

If you are unemployed, a student, retired, or have a very flexible job, it is worth telling your primary care doctor about this, because they may write in your referral that you are able to make appointments at very short notice. The specialist may then put you on their list of people to ring if one of their patients cancels. 

“Sometimes I write in my referrals that this patient could easily come at short notice, so please put the patient on the list for people you can call if there’s a time slot available,” Spak says. 

If you haven’t told your primary care doctor this, it’s not too late. You can ring the specialist yourself and tell their receptionist that you are very flexible, and ask to be put on the back-up list. This is particularly useful if you’re waiting for a scan, but you could also potentially work even if you’re waiting for heart surgery or a hip replacement. 

“If they’ve accepted you as a patient, and they’ve made sure that you fulfil the criteria for having that scan or whatever, then you can call them and say, ‘I have a really flexible job, I can come anytime if you have a gap,'” Spak says.

“A lot of people do that, because they can have [back-up] waiting lists. If you tell them ‘I work around the corner and I only need 15 minutes to be there’, then they might call you if someone doesn’t show up.” 

Ring up your specialist 

The queue system tends to be quite ad hoc, with no strict rules over who should be treated first, so it is often possible to reduce your wait by ringing up your specialist a few times a month, just to bring your case to their attention. Sometimes the receptionist will remember a slot that has just come free and bring forward your treatment while you are still on the telephone. 

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