‘I want to do my part’: Argentinian doctors come to the aid of Italy’s hospital crisis

<span>From left: Francisco Javier Pereyra, Martin Venturini, Laura Lator and Alejandro Bertolotti.</span><span>Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian</span>
From left: Francisco Javier Pereyra, Martin Venturini, Laura Lator and Alejandro Bertolotti.Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian

When the picturesque hilltop town of Mussomeli, in the rugged heart of Sicily, started offering abandoned homes for €1 in an attempt to breathe new life into a community grappling with a dwindling population, Erica Moscatello felt an immediate pull to the project.

Moscatello, an Argentinian woman and a distant relative of the guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, made the daring choice early in 2021 to uproot her life from Tuscany and relocate with her family to the town of 10,000 people.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “The people were friendly and welcoming. It felt like living a dream.”

But Moscatello’s initial excitement was hit hard when her son required urgent medical attention. She discovered the local hospital was struggling – the paediatric ward had just shuttered its doors, with the gynaecology and surgery departments following soon after – and, like many hospitals in southern Italy, it was on the verge of collapse.

Determined to stop a healthcare crisis in her new home, Moscatello embarked on a bold mission. She contacted an old friend, who was the rector at the University of Rosario in Argentina, asking whether medical professionals in the South American country would consider starting a new life in Sicily, bringing their experience and expertise and, just maybe, saving the threadbare healthcare system in the process.

“In just a matter of days, we received an overwhelming 5,000 applications,” said Moscatello, who now works as an ambassador for the Italian confederation of small and medium businesses.

Working with the local authorities, the field of applicants was whittled down to an initial batch of nine candidates, but ultimately scores of Argentinian doctors responded to the call, fleeing the economic turmoil at home as inflation hit triple figures for a fresh start.

In their new homes they were hailed as heroes for helping to keep open medical facilities that would otherwise have been doomed.

“After the positive experience in Mussomeli, we have continued to receive hundreds of requests from other hospitals,” said Moscatello. “Currently, around 99 Argentine doctors are working in Sicily. More will come in the coming months.”

She said members of the medical teams for the footballers Lionel Messi and the late Diego Maradona had also expressed an interest in coming to work in Italy.

Alejandro Mario Bertolotti was head of the cardiac and transplant department at Hospital Universitario Fundación Favaloro in Buenos Aires when he read about the scheme in a WhatsApp group chat with former colleagues. It came at a time when his family were exhausted by Argentina’s recurrent economic crises.

“We have struggled so much to overcome them,” he said. “I felt the urge for a change of scenery. After discussing it with my wife and four children, we decided to give it a try.”

Bertolotti passed the interview and he and his family arrived in Mussomeli in spring 2023. That year Argentina experienced an annual inflation rate exceeding 100%, the first triple-digit figure since the hyperinflation of 1991.

He immediately felt welcome. “Like millions of Argentines, I have Italian origins, and being in Mussomeli made me feel at home,” Bertolotti said.

Ethnic Italians and their descendants constitute more than half of Argentina’s population, so for many, moving to Italy completes a migratory circle that has been generations in the making.

“When I told my grandmother that I would be [working] in Italy, she was moved,” said Francisco Javier Pereyra, a general surgeon who worked in a burns unit in Buenos Aires. “Her relatives had moved to Argentina from northern Italy.”

Martin Venturini, a surgeon and expert in laparoscopy, said: “The economic aspect is certainly one of the reasons that led us to move here. But not the only one. Personally, I saw it as a challenge. In Italy, there is a healthcare emergency and I wanted to do my part.”

Laura Lator, a gastroenterologist surgeon from Buenos Aires, said the transition was not easy at first. “I came from a city of 16 million inhabitants. Moving to a city of 10,000 inhabitants was a bit traumatic,” she said.

“But I wanted to develop professionally, and little by little I discovered that the people here in Mussomeli were ready to help us in every way. If I needed to take the children to school, someone was immediately available to help me.”

Giovanni Di Lorenzo, an Italian who leads the team of Argentine surgeons, said the town had welcomed the new arrivals “because these doctors have brought new hope to the people”.

The move to Italy involved a change in professional culture. Argentinian surgeons were not used to personal interaction with their patients but in Italy that was expected.

“When I saw one of the Argentinian doctors hugging a patient who had just been operated on, I understood that integration had been achieved,” Di Lorenzo said.

The arrival of the doctors helped prevent the closure of the hospital and maintain local access to healthcare for 75,000 people in the surrounding areas – but challenges persist in Italy’s healthcare sector.

Salary-cap legislation imposed over the past two decades to curb public spending has kept salaries low, and work schedules are punishing. For many Italian medical staff, the Covid pandemic was the tipping point and it accelerated an exodus abroad. Spending plans published by the Giorgia Meloni government envisage further healthcare cuts.

In 2023, according to the Forum delle Società Scientifiche dei Clinici Ospedalieri e Universitari Italiani, there was a shortage of approximately 30,000 doctors in Italy. Between 2010 and 2020, 111 hospitals and 113 emergency rooms were closed. Innovative solutions are being explored, such as engaging Cuban health workers in Calabria and advocating for legislative measures to replicate successful initiatives in other regions.

In Sicily, the doctor shortage is a visceral political issue, with numerous parties calling for the Mussomeli initiative to be replicated in other hospitals and formalised into law.

“The decision to allow Argentine doctors to fill vacant positions in Mussomeli should be replicated in other areas of the region,” said Luigi Sunseri, a regional deputy for the Five Star Movement party. “Too many areas in Sicily are deprived of the right to medical care.”

Moscatello says the success of the scheme in Sicily has also drawn interest from France and Germany, which are struggling with their own doctor shortage.

But despite their role in keeping healthcare in southern Italy afloat, the future of the Argentinian doctors is not assured. The Covid emergency decree that allowed them to be hired is due to expire in 2025.

Moscatello said: “If their medical degrees are not recognised by the Italian healthcare system, all these foreign doctors will be forced to return home,. Many moved here to Sicily because the crisis was worsening in their homeland, but for others, this move to Italy meant much more.”

For Bertolotti, it would mean more than simply losing a job. His grandfather had left Italy for Argentina in 1890 to escape destitution in his native Piedmont.

“More than a century, I have taken the reverse path,” he said. “Coming back to Italy for me doesn’t mean just improving my life and that of my family. It was like closing the circle of at least three generations of my family. Returning to Italy was like going back to my roots.”