Taking the Pulse

Are things looking up for Health & Pharma in Greece?

Years of crisis and austerity have taken a toll on the Greek health sector, with the country’s health expenditure at 8.2% of the GDP in 2016, down from 9.6% just six years earlier, and hospitals and clinics around the country are bearing the brunt of the cuts. Staffing issues are also a concern, with the country demonstrating a marked imbalance in nurse and doctor numbers across the board. With 6.3 doctors per 1000 population, Greece has the highest doctor-to-population ratio—almost double the average—of all OECD countries. Yet despite having 69,000 doctors, the numbers don’t add up. It is estimated that there up to 6,000 vacant posts for doctors at Greek public hospitals, and to complicate things even more, there is a surplus of specialized doctors and laboratory physicians and a shortage of general practitioners: Greece has just 3,800 family doctors, less than half of what there should be according to the EU average. And nurses? At 3.2 per 1000 population, Greece has almost two thirds less than the average 9 per 1000 population across OECD countries.

The situation is exacerbated by the country’s penchant for expensive medicines: For years, Greeks have been buying some of the newest, most expensive drugs on the market, and outside pressure is mounting to push for an increase in prescriptions for generics. According to the European Commission, only about a quarter of medicines prescribed in the country today are generics. Indicatively, about a quarter of the total health expenditure in Greece goes towards pharmaceuticals and other medical non-durables.

While budget cuts and a push for generics mean the country’s relationship to medicine is going through a tough time, the pharmaceutical industry in Greece is holding strong, despite having to pay €1 billion in 2016 alone in paybacks and rebates and seeing sales fall on previous years. Regardless of the challenges, the industry remains the second largest sector in the Greek economy and one of its main growth engines. Pharmaceutical firms continue to look on Greece favorably, thanks to its large pools of talent and dedicated physicians and scientists. It’s not surprising then that Greece has put in a bid to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the regulatory authority that ensures the safety and suitability of medicines available to the European Union’s 500 million citizens, which is to relocate from London. Hosting the EMA headquarters brings considerable economic benefits to the host city, as the agency has approximately 900 EU-paid employees, and Greece’s bid is one of 19 offers to host the EMA. The Commission’s final decision is expected in November.

Whilst a successful bid would boost the capital’s economy, Greece is already an attractive destination for the health and pharmaceuticals sectors, providing excellent infrastructure, top European standards, and highly trained scientists, and offering considerable potential in key fields like medicines, clinical research, and medical technology. A favorable policy environment and combined public and private sector efforts could see these industries make a meaningful impact on the economy, unemployment, and of course knowledge transfer itself. Indeed, an increasing number of initiatives are facilitating opportunities for scientists to collaborate with their peers from other countries—a handful of successful programs are bringing US-based Greek scientists home to Greece to inject new ideas into the country’s scientific and academic environment—and providing funding to improve infrastructure and education in the sectors. A new initiative of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation will see grants in excess of €197 million (USD 238 million) poured into carefully selected projects around the country, including construction of new hospitals, upgrades in existing services, purchase of new equipment, retraining, and education.

So what does this bode for the future of health and pharma in Greece? It remains to be seen, but these new developments are a transfusion of new blood, an injection of fresh talent, attitudes, and funds that could very well be just what the doctor ordered.

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