Doctor, Doctor: opportunities, language and cost are factors for growing number of Finns studying medicine abroad

There's a been a big rise in recent years of Finnish medical students graduating as doctors from EU countries - especially in Eastern Europe.

File picture showing interior of hospital / Credit; iStock

When Dr Tammar Al-Nassar decided to leave his home in Tampere and study medicine abroad, he became one of a growing number of Finnish medical students to start their training overseas.

Recently graduated from medical school in the Romanian city of Oradea, Al-Nassar got accepted with his first application, and did his training in English.

“Basically I applied to Finnish medical schools at the same time as I applied abroad, and thinking to myself if I don’t get into a Finnish school I will get in abroad” says Al-Nassar, aged 30.

File picture of Dr Tammar Al-Nassar / Credit: Doctor’s own photo

“I was told you get into Finnish medical school approximately on the fourth try, if you study very hard and this was my first try, I was 23, and for personal reasons I didn’t want to waste too much time” he tells News Now Finland.

And Dr Al-Nassar is not alone.

Over the last five years the number of Finnish medical students who decide to study abroad has risen from 452 in 2013, to 1120 in 2018. The top destinations are Sweden, Latvia, Romania and Estonia.

With just five universities offering medical degrees in Finland – Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, Kuopio and Oulu – demand for places outstrips availability.

“It’s very difficult to get a position here in Finland to study medicine” explains Piitu Parmanne a researcher at the Finnish Medical Association Lääkäriliitto.

“There are several times more people than places, it’s something like only 1-in-10 gets a place to study so there’s a lot of people who like to start studying medicine and they head abroad because it’s very much quicker to start their studies” she says.

Attracting EU students

Medical schools are big business across the EU with many being active to recruit students and offering courses in common languages.

In Romania the Cluj University of Medicine and Pharmacy offers medical degree programmes taught in English, French and German as well as Romanian.

“The medical studies are quite similar in EU countries and of course every university teaches medicine based on their local needs, but there are still some universities that really produce their medicine education to international markets” explains Piitu Parmanne.

“They market their education to the whole of Europe and it’s a business for them” she says.

The cost of the studies, for six years, varies depending on where the Finnish students end up going to university.

It was an important factor for Tammar Al-Nassar as well.

“Estonia was on my mind back then, and many Finnish medical students go there. At that point there was also financial issues in that the year I wanted to apply, Estonia basically increased their prices from €5,500 per year to €11,000 per year so it was a big increase” he says.

“Romania came along and at that point it was €4,500. If you compare others, Russia is cheap but it’s not in the EU. When you want to go to study medicine abroad it’s better for you to choose an EU country and it’s less hassle to come back and work in Finland” Al-Nassar adds.

Finnish students studying medicine abroad / Credit: Lääkäriliitto

Getting a job in Finland 

Most of the Finnish medical students who qualify as doctors in another EU country will come back to work in Finland.

That’s likely to be due to salary differences.

“If you think about young people studying for example in Estonia and they get their medical degree and after that if they would like to start working in Estonia, their salaries would be something like €1000 per month, and in Finland it would be about €4500 to €5000 per month” says Lääkäriliitto researcher Piitu Parmanne.

“The salary gap is really huge and I think that’s the main reason why people studying in Estonia or Lithuania or Poland, they are coming back for sure to Finland” she says.

For Dr Al-Nassar the system that Finland has of practical experience for student doctors worked to his advantage because he was able to get work in hospitals during holidays from university.

“In Finland after third, fourth, fifth year I could go and work in a Finnish hospital as a trainee and in my opinion that is very important. In Sweden and Norway they don’t have this practice. They have to study for six years and then go to work, and they don’t have any exposure to hospital work before then, unlike Finland” Al-Nassar explains.

File picture showing interior of Töölö Hospital, Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

Second class doctors? 

So with foreign medical degrees becoming more popular, is there a risk of people who qualified in Romania or Poland being seen somehow as ‘second class doctors’?

Doctor Al-Nassar says he hasn’t faced anything like that at all since he qualified and started working in a Helsinki hospital doing ward rounds.

“The thing is in Finland I’ve never seen this. They don’t discriminate in any way, they don’t care where you’re from or where you studied” he says, adding that older people especially just want a doctor who speaks good Finnish.

“When you start working and if you’re not good at the job, it would be noticeable, it would be very obvious” he adds.