Austerity: Healthcare in hardship


Healthcare budgets constitute one of the largest chunks of public expenditure throughout the EU, and the associated industry is considered one of Europe’s success stories. Europeans consider healthcare as one of the benchmarks that sets the continent apart in terms of quality of life from other nations. But the ageing demographic, and the shock of the financial crisis have brought the contrast between Europe’s ideals and reality sharply into focus.

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The financial crisis that started in 2007-2008 has developed into a long lasting and widely impacting economic and social crisis. In those European countries hardest hit, such as Greece, the spotlight has focused on the immediate buoyancy of the economy, but the side effects all impact on the health sector.

Poverty, more people at risk of food insecurity, more people and children vulnerably housed, an increase of alcohol consumption, and a rise in unemployment – all have led to poor health, an increased incidence of suicide, and mental ill health.

This situation has had a double impact on health systems as an increased demand on health services coincides painfully with cuts made to government health budgets.

The issue also touches the EU’s 2020 strategy, which aims to achieve 75% employment amongst those aged between 20 and 64 and to reduce the numbers of Europeans living in poverty by 20 million.

The World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that non-communicable diseases will cause a €47 trillion economic output loss during the period 2005-2030, a clear challenge to the future prospects of the Europe 2020 strategy.

The challenge also takes the form of a knock-on effect. To some extent the crisis offers opportunities, and campaigners against obesity have exploited the need for government revenue to encourage politicians to slap taxes on sugary and fatty foods.

However, it is not only healthy Europeans who are key to an eventual emergence from the crisis, but also a well-shaped health sector and industry, among others.

The sector makes up a massive 10% EU GDP and health services together with associated organisations are amongst Europe’s largest employers. The pharmaceutical industry in particular is one of Europe’s most successful employers and exporters. The industry is under increasing pressure, as governments seek to drive down the price of medicines, and in some cases leave the bills unpaid.