Lack of healthcare funding in Greece is putting patients’ lives at risk

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: (Published 11 January 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j93
  1. Julianna Photopoulos
  1. Athens

Greece’s public health sector is facing major shortages of staff, medical supplies, and equipment after seven years of austerity measures, and latest figures show an increase in numbers of life threatening infections and deaths.

“Our public health system is in meltdown owing to continual cutbacks in healthcare,” said Michalis Giannakos, head of the Panhellenic Federation of Public Hospital Employees. “Hospitals are underfunded and understaffed, putting patients’ lives at risk. People who might otherwise survive are dying.”

Latest available figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control for 2011-12 showed that about 9% of patients admitted to hospitals in Greece developed hospital acquired infections, accounting for an estimated 3000 deaths a year.1 The centre said that the incidence was higher than the average for Europe and that it was particularly high in intensive care units and neonatal wards in Greek hospitals.

Giannakos said that the problem was worsening, with the incidence of hospital acquired infections reaching 15% in 2016. He said, “There are data showing that infection rates are higher now, but the government refuses to publish them. We challenge the government to publish the data.”

In a statement on 2 January Greece’s health minister, Andreas Xanthos, said that the figures on infection rates were based on outdated information and did not take account of recent data from the Hellenic Statistical Authority. He said, “Greece is a safe country in terms of healthcare. The ESY [national health system] is now being stabilised and upgraded daily.”

Greece’s economic crisis has drastically affected the health sector. “Every day the Greek health system becomes increasingly unmanageable because of the lack of personnel, inadequate sanitation, and absence of supplies and medicines,” Giannakos said. He added that hospitals were not properly maintaining diagnostic equipment, risking misdiagnosis.

Each nurse working in public hospitals is responsible for up to 40 patients and four patients in intensive care units. “Cuts are such that even in intensive care units we have lost 150 beds,” he said. “Every day 30 patients wait on the intensive unit lists for more than 24 hours, meaning their lives are at even higher risk.”

Waiting lists for surgery can exceed one year; patients with cancer can be on the waiting list for radiotherapy for six months, even when their life expectancy is only three months; and patients in emergency departments can wait up to eight hours to be seen.

Among ways to improve Greece’s healthcare situation Giannakos said that “the government could look for resources, as promised, by tackling tax evasion.”

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show that per capita spending on public health in Greece has been cut by nearly a third since 2009. By 2014, public spending had fallen to 4.7% of gross domestic product, from a pre-crisis high of 9.9%. The number of healthcare staff has fallen by more than 25 000, with doctors leaving to work in other European countries, mostly the United Kingdom and Germany.

Acknowledging the staff shortages, the government said that it planned to appoint more than 8000 new health staff this year: 4000 employed through Greece’s Manpower Employment Organisation on 12 month contracts and a further 4200 as permanent staff for intensive care units.

On 4 January the government announced that it would recruit 1666 permanent staff to work in hospitals. However, Giannakos said that employment procedures in Greece were time consuming and “could take up to two years to complete.”


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