Following the global recession, Greece has seen its economy shrink for the past six years with little or even no growth forecast for 2014. A new study published in The Lancet finds that continued cuts to the Greek health care budget have been linked to less access to the health system, a spike in the incidence of infectious disease, and an overall deterioration in mental health. Clear signs of the nation's deteriorating health include:

  • Infant mortality (jumped by 43 percent between 2008 and 2010)
  • Major depression (increased two and a half times between 2008 and 2011)
  • Suicides (increased by 45 percent between 2007 and 2011)
  • Reduction in state funding for mental health (decreased by 55 percent between 2011 and 2012)
  • HIV incidence (has risen in injecting drug-users more than 10-fold from 2009 to 2012)
  • Tuberculosis incidence among injecting drug users (more than doubled in 2013)

“The data reveals that the Greek welfare state has failed to protect people at the time they needed support the most,” Dr. Alexander Kentikelenis of Cambridge University, lead author of the study, stated in a press release. “A rapidly growing number of Greeks are losing access to healthcare from budget cuts and unemployment.” The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In Greece, 2008’s global recession was followed by a downgrading of the government’s debt to junk bond status in 2010, which in turn led to a commitment to austerity measures in exchange for a bailout by the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. The country’s economy shrunk by 20 percent between 2008 and 2012, as unemployment rates more than tripled during that same period; nearly one quarter of the Greek population (24.3 percent) found themselves without a job in 2012 as compared to a mere 7.7 percent in 2008.

The authors discovered that Greece has made the largest cutbacks to the health sector across all of Europe and Greece's public spending on health is currently less than any of the other pre-2004 European Union members. With the terms of the bailout package capping public expenditures at six percent of GDP, the budget has necessarily been reduced in light of a declining Greek economy. From 2009 to 2011, for instance, the public hospital budget shrank by over 25 percent. The bailout agreement also stipulated shifting the cost of health care to patients, and so the government introduced new charges for visits to outpatient clinics and higher costs for medicines.

“The cost of austerity is being borne mainly by ordinary Greek citizens, who have been affected by the largest cutbacks to the health sector seen across Europe in modern times,” said Dr. David Stuckler of the University of Oxford and senior author of the study. The authors' analysis of available data from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions revealed a 47 percent rise in people who felt they did not receive medically necessary health care due, in part, to an inability to afford care. Rapidly increasing unemployment has meant a growing number of people with no form of health coverage — an estimated 800,000 without unemployment benefits or the ability to access health services.

Before the international financial crisis occurred, the authors note, the Greek health care system required updating, and this is one reason the country has had such difficulties. Experiences of other financially-strapped countries, such as Iceland and Finland, suggest that governments might avoid a crisis taking its toll on the health of their populations by separating allocating health within the budget. “We hope this research will help the Greek government mount an urgently needed response to these escalating human crises,” Stuckler said.

Source: Kentikelenis A, Karanikolos M, Reeves A, McKee M, Stuckler D. Greece's health crisis: from austerity to denialism. The Lancet. 2014.