by Jamie Coffin, Ph.D., Vice President & General Manager, Dell Healthcare & Life Sciences
Ireland’s healthcare system has come a long way. Four years ago, the Euro Health Consumer Index report ranked it 11th out of 31 countries – a vast improvement from its 26th position in 2006.
Ireland is catching up with the rest of Europe on other healthcare indicators, too. While Irish life expectancy had trailed behind the rest of the EU, today it stands at 80 years — two years longer than the EU average. This can be attributed to two factors: improved treatment of circulatory system diseases, which has reduced death rates by 39 percent, and a significant increase in health services spending. Over the past decade, Ireland’s total public health expenditure has increased from €7.2 billion in 2001 to €15.5 billion in 2009. However, there was an estimated slight dip in 2010 to €14.8 billion.
The healthcare recession
Unfortunately, Ireland’s healthcare gains could now be reversed. Like many other countries, Ireland is coping with recessionary pressures that have put a severe strain on the healthcare system. This has been accompanied by greater demands on health infrastructure. Although Ireland’s healthcare system is currently free to all, the level of coverage favors economically weaker groups. Medical cardholders include 33 percent of the population, and there has been a 30 percent rise in their numbers over the last decade. Economic pressures caused an increase of 9 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone.
Mary Harney, TD, former Minister for Health and Children admitted, “We are now in a period where resources are severely constrained. Protecting and enhancing our health gains and continuing to improve health services will require working both more efficiently and more effectively.”
Ireland has tried to balance the impact of reduced healthcare spending with improved service delivery. For example, public acute hospitals have moved to more day case treatments. After a 139 percent increase over the last decade, the 650,000 day cases handled annually in Ireland’s hospitals now outnumber their inpatients.
Along with current resource constraints, Ireland must also address the problem of future healthcare planning. A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) points out that Ireland’s growing and aging population could make the country’s current healthcare practices unsustainable by the year 2021. The emphasis now needs to shift from acute hospitals to primary, community and continuing-care services.
ESRI estimates that an additional 13,000 residential, long-term care facilities will be required by 2021. It also predicts a shortage of general practitioners (GPs) resulting from the more frequent need for GP consultations among the elderly.
The government has factored these considerations into its long-term planning and understands that the aging population will increase the demand for high quality and accessible healthcare.
Like many other countries, Ireland needs to plan for future demographic changes, while also coping with recessionary pressures. If it can execute a forward-thinking strategy grounded in the current economic environment, Ireland will be able to transform these healthcare challenges into opportunities for significant growth and improved care.
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