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Athens Health Summit discusses challenges stemming from Covid-19 pandemic

Greek government officials and experts explore the lessons learned from the ongoing coronavirus crisis, as well as the headway made in the digitization of healthcare

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As Greece battles the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, government officials and experts shared their experiences and views on the health crisis, the lessons learned, the gaps in the national healthcare system and the challenges for the days that will follow the pandemic over several debates held at a two-day Athens Health Summit organized by Kathimerini, that ended Wednesday.

Finance Minister Christos Staikouras told the summit that Greece’s total health spending will bump up to 11.7 billion euros next year. The amount, which involves all government ministries, equals 6.3 percent of the country’s GDP, and thus puts Greece close to the European Union average of 7 percent. He also said that the government will hire an additional 6,000 health workers in 2022, an estimated 29 percent of total hirings next year. 

At the same time, the government will have spent an “unprecedented” 43 billion euros to address the economic impact of the health crisis from 2020 to 2022, the minister said. “We have managed to reduce, as far as possible, the footprint of the pandemic and to create the conditions for a strong recovery,” he said.

Fourth wave will be ‘toughest’

Health Minister Thanos Plevris warned that the fourth wave of the pandemic will be the “toughest” Greece has been through as the government has chosen not to bring the economy and social activities to a halt.

Plevris said the government’s choice to keep the economy open despite a record number of Covid infections and a high number of deaths was “the right one,” adding that the National Health System is being pressured, “as it is pressured every winter, but it also has the pandemic to handle.”

Since the beginning of 2021, 85% of infections have concerned people who have not been vaccinated, along with 95% of patients in hospitals and 90% of deaths, he said.

Turning the spotlight on people who refuse to get inoculated against Covid-19, State Minister Akis Skertsos said Greece is facing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” adding that they correspond to nine out of 10 intubated patients in the country’s hospitals.

Among European Union countries, Greece is 16th in terms of Covid-related deaths per million inhabitants, he said, noting that red tape, pandemic fatigue, and lack of public trust in the institutions are undermining government efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, he added that official data show the country is faring better than the EU average, “which alone is a significant accomplishment.”

Clarifying that authorities rely on World Health Organization (WHO) metrics to estimate mortality from the virus, Skertsos attributed the death toll to lower-than-needed vaccination rates.

“It is extremely sad. [Many deaths] could have been avoided. Around 100 people are dying on a daily basis,” he said, adding that Greece has the second oldest population in the EU.

He defended authorities’ efforts to ramp up the National Health System during the heath crisis, saying that the government raised the number of intensive care unit beds from 557 to almost 1,300, while hiring 12,000 healthcare workers on permanent and short-term contracts.

Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga referred to the need to combine the public healthcare system with Greece’s “very strong” private health sector to strengthen health services, while maintaining accessibility for all. She said that during the pandemic, the public health system was significantly strengthened, both by the state and by private donations.

‘No magic wands’

Marios Themistokleous, secretary-general in charge of vaccinations, highlighted the significance of the nationwide inoculation program for primary healthcare in Greece, praising the so-called Operation Freedom (Eleftheria) as “the best manifestation of the executive state.”

Asked during a panel discussion on the second day of Kathimerini’s summit about Greece’s relatively low vaccination coverage, Themistokleous blamed “a wide range of social, political and cultural factors.”

“There are no magic wands,” he said.

Greece has until now administered at least 13,696,351 doses of the coronavirus shot. Assuming every person needs two doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 63.9 percent of the total population.

Speaking about the booster dose, Themistokleous said that the recommendation of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is six months after completing the primary shots.

“If the data change, so will we,” he said.

Theoklis Zaoutis, head of the National Organization for Public Health (EODY) and a professor of pediatric medicine at Athens University, focused on long Covid and how to provide healthcare to affected patients. “In children it reaches 10% and in adults it can reach 40 to 50%,” he said.

On a positive note, he announced that the results garnered regarding the third dose of the vaccine so far show its effectiveness reaches 90% against serious illness and transmission of the virus.

Digital upgrade

The pandemic also sped up the planned digitization of the health system’s services, said Niki Tsouma, president and CEO of IDIKA, the state’s electronic prescription system.

“We had planned the digital transformation with what we knew, until the pandemic came and times were shortened, and two years later we have created digital services for citizens much sooner than we had planned,” she told the summit, pointing to her cooperation with Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis.

Tsouma was referring to the myHealth app, which provides patients with access to their personal health and medical records and aims to help combat bureaucracy, reduce overprescription and bring down drug spending. The app has been downloaded 160,000 times, she said.

For his part, Pierrakakis said the Myhealth app is a “prototype” of a medical record, which will be built gradually through the creation of several other applications on the Gov.gr platform. “We deeply believe that the digital transformation of the state, as the period that has just passed has shown, has the digital transformation of the health system at its core,” the minister told the summit, pointing to the very successful online platform for booking vaccination appointments. 

Challenges and shortages

Andreas Xanthos, former health minister and shadow health minister for the main opposition party, SYRIZA, focused on the gaps in the national healthcare system that were laid bare by the pandemic, particularly in primary healthcare, the lack of a family doctor, community care, home care, emergency care in hospitals and rehabilitation, the shortage of staff in intensive care, the gaps in occupational medicine, geriatrics, palliative care and environmental health.

He also warned of an irreversible trend toward the migration of health scientists abroad, and an exodus from the public to the private healthcare sector, noting that the National Health System is no longer attractive to young doctors.

The summit concluded with Professor Mario Monti, chair of the WHO’s Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, saying the pandemic has demonstrated that no country can face the pandemic by going it alone.