With Its Economy Hobbled, Greece's Well-Educated Drain Away : Parallels Since the start of its financial crisis, Greece has been exporting some of its most highly trained professionals. Thanos Ntoumanis is just one of thousands of medical professionals who have left their struggling homeland for jobs in Western Europe.
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With Its Economy Hobbled, Greece's Well-Educated Drain Away

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With Its Economy Hobbled, Greece's Well-Educated Drain Away

With Its Economy Hobbled, Greece's Well-Educated Drain Away

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

German companies use to do very well by exporting products to Greece. That was before the deep economic recession that hit Southern Europe and hammered Greece especially. Now it's the Greeks who are exporting, not goods but their brightest people, including thousands of highly-trained doctors. And many are recruited by German clinics short on physicians.

Reporter Joanna Kakissis met one Greek psychiatrist and learned about his painful decision to leave his homeland.

LAURA NTOUMANIS: Today was a hard day.

THANOS NTOUMANIS: Today was a hard day. We're packing and yeah, closing the house.

NTOUMANIS: Closing the house so there was a lot of welling up, I guess.


NTOUMANIS: On both of our parts.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanos Ntoumanis and his wife Laura are staying for a couple of days at his parents' apartment in the northern city of Thessaloniki. Soon they will leave Greece for Germany, where Thanos, a 38-year-old psychiatrist will begin a new job. He joins some 4,000 doctors who have left Greece in the last three years.

NTOUMANIS: I won't say, you know, I'm never coming back or anything like that. I do need some distance, though, I think. I don't want to get to that tipping point. I don't want to get to that point where I hate it here.

KAKISSIS: His mother, Pepi Mavrogianni, brings out a tray of warm cheese pies. She's a retired pediatrician wearing a T-shirt with the Hippocratic Oath.

PEPI MAVROGIANNI: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: We have Skype, so we can talk every day if we want, she says. Three of her four children became doctors, like her and her husband, a cardiologist. Now, due to a confluence of austerity and an oversupply of physicians in Greece, her kids have to work abroad.

MAVROGIANNI: (Through Translator) It's good to have your child nearby. But if he's not happy, what's the point? You can't block his progress because you want him to stay.

KAKISSIS: Before the debt crisis hit in 2010, Thanos made less than $2,000 a month as a psychiatrist for the military. He also had a private practice that brought in a bit of extra cash. But after international lenders forced Greece to cut public sector wages, in exchange for billions in bailout loans, that monthly salary was cut by $500. And with more than a quarter of the work force unemployed, his private practice patients had less money.

He struggled to pay rent on his office and skyrocketing taxes on his property and income.

NTOUMANIS: It was humiliating, OK, to not to be able to pay for heating petrol - heating oil, and to have to borrow money from my parents. Not to be able to do these simple things that defines self-sufficiency, really.

KAKISSIS: He also despaired as Greek society fractured and no one offered a clear plan to get out of the crisis.

NTOUMANIS: If there came someone to lead and to say: Look, we'll go through this kind of hell and we'll have to do these things, I'd stay here. I'd go through that. But there's no one.

KAKISSIS: An opportunity to escape came about a year ago, when a young German headhunter contacted Thanos on the social media service LinkedIn. The recruiter told him Germany needed doctors.

NTOUMANIS: The recruiter set up appointments with five different clinics. I interviewed at all of them. They were all very, very good, I thought.

KAKISSIS: All five clinics offered him work. It helped that Thanos, like many Greek doctors, already knew German. He was born in Western Germany, where parents did their residencies 40 years ago. So he has chosen a job in the same area, in the lush, steepled-city of Muenster. His younger brother, also a psychiatrist, is already working there.

In Germany were you offered a lot more money? Was that one of the things that attracted you?

NTOUMANIS: Yes, it was, especially in light of the huge debt I would have to pay off.

KAKISSIS: He must pay the Greek army the equivalent of $260,000 for leaving before his military service is complete.

But it's not like Greece is short of specialized doctors, says Tassos Philalithis, a professor of social medicine at the University of Crete.

TASSOS PHILALITHIS: For the last 40 years, the number of new physicians in Greece annually increases by a net 1,200 physicians. You know, we have a surplus of gynecologists, a surplus of neurosurgeons and we don't have primary care physicians. We don't have public health specialists.

KAKISSIS: As Greece rose out of poverty and dictatorship after 1974, people chose medicine for its job security and prestige. Those who did not get into Greek universities studied anywhere they could get in - even Uzbekistan, Philalithis says. Now there are too many of them.

ALEXANDER JAKEL: My name is Alexander Jakel. I'm a policy advisor in the International Department of the German Medical Association.

KAKISSIS: Alexander Jakel says Germany, on the other hand, has not had enough physicians. Medical schools are not producing enough of them, and practicing doctors are retiring at the same time the German population is aging.

JAKEL: This means we are facing a quite considerable lack of doctors in, well, at least 10 to 20 years. So there are job vacancies in Germany already and this number of vacancies is slightly to grow in the next couple of years.

KAKISSIS: Jakel says the number of Greek doctors moving to Germany has more than doubled in the last 13 years.


KAKISSIS: The day before Thanos leaves for Muenster, his siblings and their families gather for a farewell dinner at his parents' house in Thessaloniki.

PANTELIS NTOUMANIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: His father, Pantelis, the cardiologist, says these days he treats many patients these days for free. But that means he cannot afford to fly to Muenster to see his sons or Stockholm, where his daughter works as a pediatrician.


KAKISSIS: The next morning, Pantelis drives Thanos and Laura to the airport. Everyone is quiet. Thanos looks out the window for a last glimpse of the hills and the sea.


KAKISSIS: Outside the terminal, father and son embrace in silence, their faces tight with sadness. The night before, Pantelis' wife tried to convince him that Greece will recover and their kids will move back in ten years.

MAVROGIANNI: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Ten years is nothing, she said, holding his hand. Well, Pantelis replied, I think it's going to be forever.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

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