The Athens Health Summit discusses challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic

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

Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said at the summit that Greece’s total health expenditure will rise to 11.7 billion euros in the next year. The amount in which all ministries are involved corresponds to 6.3 percent of the country’s GDP, which is close to the EU average of 7 percent. He also said the government will hire an additional 6,000 healthcare workers in 2022, an estimated 29 percent of total recruitment over the next year.

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

Fourth wave will be the toughest

Health Minister Thanos Plevris warned that the fourth wave of the pandemic will be the “toughest” in Greece as the government has decided not to stall the economy and social activities.

Plevris said the government’s decision 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 would be put under pressure “as it is every winter is pressured, but it “also has to deal with the pandemic.”

As of early 2021, 85% of infections have affected unvaccinated people, 95% of patients in hospitals, and 90% of deaths, he said.

Minister of State Akis Skertsos turned the spotlight on people who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19, saying Greece is facing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” adding that it has nine out of ten intubated patients in the country’s hospitals correspond to.

Greece ranks 16th among the countries of the European Union for Covid-related deaths per million people. However, he added that official data shows the country outperforms the EU average, “which in itself is a significant achievement is”.

Skertsos clarified that authorities are relying on the World Health Organization (WHO) metrics to estimate mortality from the virus and attributed the death toll to vaccination rates lower than required.

“It’s very sad. [Many deaths] could have been avoided. Around 100 people die every day, ”he said, adding that Greece has the second oldest population in the EU.

Defending authorities’ efforts to ramp up the national health system during the health crisis, he said the government had increased the number of ICU beds from 557 to nearly 1,300 while hiring 12,000 health care workers on permanent and temporary contracts.

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

“No wands”

General Secretary Marios Themistokleous, responsible for vaccinations, emphasized the importance of the nationwide vaccination program for basic health care in Greece and praised the so-called Operation Freedom (Eleftheria) as “the best manifestation of the executive state”.

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

“There are no wands,” he said.

Greece has so far administered at least 13,696,351 doses of the coronavirus shot. Assuming everyone needs two doses, that’s enough to vaccinate about 63.9 percent of the total population.

Regarding the booster dose, Themistokleous said the recommendation from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is six months after the primary syringes are complete.

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

Theoklis Zaoutis, Head of the National Public Health Organization (EODY) and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Athens, focused on the long Covid and health care of affected patients. “It reaches 10% in children and 40 to 50% in adults,” he said.

Happily, he announced that the results so far of the third dose of the vaccine show that its effectiveness against serious diseases and virus transmission reaches 90%.

Digital upgrade

The pandemic has also accelerated the planned digitization of healthcare services, said Niki Tsouma, president and CEO of IDIKA, the state’s electronic prescription system.

“We had planned the digital transformation with our knowledge until the pandemic came and the times were cut and two years later we created digital services for citizens much earlier than planned,” she told the summit, referring to her collaboration with Kyriakos Pierrakakis, Minister for Digital Governance.

Tsouma was referring to the myHealth app, which gives patients access to their personal health and medical records and is designed to help fight red tape, reduce overprescription and cut spending on medication. 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 that will be gradually created through the creation of several other applications on the platform. “We are firmly convinced that the digital transformation of the state, as the past time has shown, has the digital transformation of the health system at its center,” said the minister at the summit, referring to the very successful online booking platform Impftermine resp.

Challenges and bottlenecks

Andreas Xanthos, former health minister and shadow health minister of the largest opposition party SYRIZA, focused on the gaps in the national health system exposed by the pandemic, especially in primary health care, the lack of a general practitioner, community care, home care, emergency care in hospitals and rehabilitation, staff shortages in the intensive care unit, gaps in occupational medicine, geriatrics, palliative medicine and environmental health.

He also warned of an irreversible trend of health scholars emigrating abroad and an exodus from the public to the private health sector, noting that the National Health System was no longer attractive to young doctors.

The summit concluded with Professor Mario Monti, Chair of the WHO Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, who said the pandemic had shown that no country can face the pandemic alone.

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