New Department for General Medicine at the JKU Faculty of Medicine

Erika Zelko will serve as the new head of General Medicine at Johannes Kepler University Linz beginning October 1, 2021.

From left: Niedermoser, Haberlander, Zelko, Drda, Lukas
From left: Niedermoser, Haberlander, Zelko, Drda, Lukas

The new Institute of General Medicine at the JKU Faculty of Medicine will serve to bridge clinical scientific medicine and outpatient family practice. When it comes to studying medicine at the JKU, a significant cornerstone is general medicine as an educative subject area. In order to combat the shortage of the number of physicians in private practice, the JKU aims to not only introduce newly enrolled medical students to the subject area of general medicine at a very early stage in their studies, but also spark an interest in the area.

JKU Rector Meinhard Lukas remarked, "Our focus on general medicine at the JKU also supports our intent to exercise social responsibility. The JKU Faculty of Medicine aims to improve the healthcare situation in Austria, particularly by creating a separate chair for general medicine and supporting academic recognition in this subject area. Erika Zelko is an expert and her professional experience in Slovenia will benefit the Faculty of Medicine. In Slovenia, this area as been a subject of particular importance for a number of years."

Christine Haberlander, deputy governor of Upper Austria and healthcare minister, added, "I am delighted that we are continuing to move forward and advance medical education in Upper Austria by filling the chair for General Medicine. This an important step because providing GP services in regions throughout Austria has been a major challenge for everyone involved in the healthcare system. As a state, we naturally aim to get involved and help where we can and young physicians find regional primary care models particularly attractive. We can do this by further expanding emergency GP services and collaboration efforts. Hands-on medical education combined with the clinical internship year will give prospective physicians an on-site opportunity to learn about what being the family doctor is about. At the JKU, extensive involvement in general medicine is firmly anchored in the curriculum and appointing a new chair will strengthen the field of general medicine. Altogether, this combination of measures will improve the situation and educate more family doctors who could serve the outer lying, more rural areas."

General medicine has a long history in Slovenia and has been a specialized area since 1962 when the country was still a part of Yugoslavia. The subject area underwent revisions in 2000. The majority of GPs have been working in primary care centers since 1927. The University of Ljubljana created a separate chair for general medicine as early as 2000 and when Maribor created a Faculty of Medicine in 2003, a chair in General Medicine followed.

Erika Zelko explained: "When it comes to the healthcare system, GPs are the ‘navigators and gatekeepers’, if you will, for patients. As an initial point of contact, GPs assess the need for treatment and refer patients to other specialists or hospitals for treatment."

In order to combat the shortage in the number of physicians, Zelko noted that many measures and policies are needed. She added: "We have to lay the foundation during medical school. We have to make the job description of ‘rural physician’ - usually GPs - more attractive. We need to introduce newly enrolled medical students to the profession and spark an interested for the field."

Addressing the Physician Shortage
The department aims to address the shortage of general practitioners. There are currently 29 open GP positions in Upper Austria (last update: July 1, 2021); 7 open positions are in Linz and 8 are in Vöcklabruck, which is concerning. An upcoming wave of physicians going into retirement in the coming years will intensify the situation.

Peter Niedermoser, president of the Medical Association of Upper Austria, weighed in: "General medicine is the country’s primary medical care and it is vital for this area to be represented at the university level, especially when educating future physicians. This department is very important and should be considered an encouraging development, particularly in lieu of an imminent shortage of physicians."

Medical Studies at the JKU: Focus on General Medicine
The Faculty of Medicine aims to tackle the need for more physicians by including the field in its curriculum.

Over 50 GPs have been hired as instructors to cover areas of theoretical knowledge and real-world, hands-on practice. Students studying at the JKU will also have an opportunity to write their undergraduate and/or graduate thesis in the field of general medicine. 67 GPs in Upper Austria will hold courses at the JKU Faculty of Medicine and also train students at their practices. During the first semester, students spend the first two weeks completing a mandatory internship at a GP practice. As part of the mandatory clinical traineeship, students can opt to spend up to four weeks at a GP practice. Students can also opt to spend an additional 4 weeks at a GP practice as part of their clinical internship (8 weeks in total) to fulfill the autonomous coursework requirements.

The Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK) and the Upper Austrian Medical Association (ÄKOÖ) have created a special program for those completing the required Clinical Practice Year that provides students in the GP internship program with €650 a month in "pocket money". During the practice year, students can complete an additional eight weeks and fulfill autonomous coursework requirements. During this period, students also earn €650 a month in "pocket money".

The JKU Faculty of Medicine is taking decisive and innovative steps to educate more physicians by giving students in the medical degree program an opportunity to study general medicine, beginning during the first semester and all the way up to graduation.

Elgin Drda, Vice-Rector and Dean of the JKU Faculty of Medicine added: "We were looking for an experienced professional and someone who could combine their expertise with hands-on experience. We are excited to have Professor Zelko on board as she is exactly what we were looking for and we also have another woman to add to our team of professors. It is also important to us that Professor Zelko continue practicing general medicine, either in a private practice or in close cooperation with Kepler University Hospital."

Chair for General Medicine - Main Area of Focus

In recent years, we have seen medical advancements result in strong growth in the area of treatment. At the same time, however, there is a sharp rise in the number of geriatric and chronic-related conditions.

Erika Zelko added: "The department of General Medicine will take this change into account. This also shows students how important this area is, especially later on during their careers. On one hand, the department creates new perspectives in practice and on the other hand, there is more of a drive to conduct research and support advancements in this area."

The following will be key:

  • Transferring core skills in general medicine to students by means of innovative educational methods and applied practice
    • Research (telemedicine, preventative medicine, and chronic illnesses)
    • Evidence-based medicine
    • Vertical, horizontal, extramural, and intramural institute networking with important stakeholders (medical association, private practices, hospitals, state government, healthcare insurance companies, social insurance)

General practitioners are particularly important at the Kepler University Hospital, both in terms of their contributions to departments, institutes, the emergency room, as well as producing well-educated, highly qualified GPs on-site. The Kepler University Hospital is involved in a wide range of areas and serves a high number of patients, contributing significantly to the need for high-quality general education in medicine. In addition, the new department of general medicine will serve as a point of contact for medical students, especially those that wish to become general practitioners, creating ideal circumstances for members of the JKU Faculty of Medicine to work with and educate young GPs.

Franz Harnoncourt, CEO of Kepler University Hospital, added: "We are please the university will incorporate this subject area at the Faculty of Medicine and we are very interested in collaborating with the Department of General Medicine to develop content-related and structural connections. Erika Zelko is a very experienced GP and has an impressive academic background. I would like to congratulate the JKU and Prof. Zelko on the appointment and look forward to strong and productive collaboration."


About Assist. Prof. Dr. Erika Zelko

A native of Slovenia, Assist. Prof. Dr. Erike Zelko has been a physician for 25 years and for 16 years, she taught general medicine at the Faculty of Medicine in Maribor. In Maribor, she also led a research group at the Department of General Medicine. Dr. Zelko is also actively involved in various committees and organizations in the field of general medicine.