The Austrian health system provides universal coverage for a wide range of benefits and high-quality care. Free choice of providers and unrestricted access to all care levels (general practitioners, specialist physicians and hospitals) are characteristic features of the system. Unsurprisingly, population satisfaction is well above EU average. Income-related inequality in health has increased since 2005, although it is still relatively low compared to other countries.
The health-care system has been shaped by both the federal structure of the state and a tradition of delegating responsibilities to self-governing stakeholders. On the one hand, this enables decentralized planning and governance, adjusted to local norms and preferences. On the other hand, it also leads to fragmentation of responsibilities and frequently results in inadequate coordination. For this reason, efforts have been made for several years to achieve more joint planning, governance and financing of the health-care system at the federal and regional level.
As in any health system, a number of challenges remain. The costs of the health-care system are well above the EU15 average, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP. There are important structural imbalances in healthcare provision, with an oversized hospital sector and insufficient resources available for ambulatory care and preventive medicine. This is coupled with stark regional differences in utilization, both in curative services (hospital beds and specialist physicians) and preventative services such as preventive health check-ups, outpatient rehabilitation, psychosocial and psychotherapeutic care and nursing. There are clear social inequalities in the use of medical services, such as preventive health check-ups, immunization or dentistry.
One of the key weaknesses of the health-care system is in the prevention of illness. Spending on preventive medicine, at 2% of total health spending, is significantly lower than the EU15 and OECD average (both 3%), and also shows a below-average rate of growth. It remains to be seen whether the focus on health promotion and prevention of the “framework health goals” approved in 2012 will be translated into concrete measures, whether clear responsibilities for implementation can be assigned, and whether sufficient funding will be made available. This would be likely to improve the health of the Austrian population and would help to reduce costs associated with preventable diseases.
( HSiT )