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The good, the bad and the alright: Ireland's healthcare system compared to the rest of the EU

Our interactive graphs showing where Ireland ranks compared to other EU countries.

IN IRELAND, WE are often reminded that our healthcare system pales in comparison to our European neighbours.

This was especially brought to light during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we suffered Europe’s longest lockdown due in part to fears that our under-resourced healthcare system would be overwhelmed.

But how do we really compare to the rest of Europe? It can be difficult to ascertain — there are many metrics, figures and statistics that can be weighed against each other, and all can paint a very different light.

To help explain this, we have looked at some key comparative tools to see how Ireland copes on a continental basis. Some show that we are leading the way for European healthcare, while others show that we have a long way to go yet. 

The Good: Life Expectancy 

Across the EU, we have the highest life expectancy at just over 82 years, and are fourth overall when all the countries in Europe are included. The Covid-19 pandemic, which had debilitating effects on some country’s life expectancy, left Ireland’s figure relatively unscathed, owing to our low death count per capita from the pandemic. 

Our extended lockdown clearly helped keep death numbers down, which in turn helped keep our life expectancy stable but Ireland still had the highest expectancy in 2019 – suggesting that it’s something deeper than our Covid-19 response. 

The Bad: Hospital Beds

Ireland had the third lowest number of hospital beds available in the EU in 2019, above only Sweden and Denmark. It has been worse (relatively) in the past: we ranked in last place in 2012 and 2013 before we overtook Sweden, and have remained at the lower end of the spectrum ever since.

There are a few surprising leaders in the EU: Romania and Bulgaria are at the higher end, despite having some of the lowest life expectancy in the EU, as we saw in the last map.

However, we have kept relatively in check with our population – the number of hospital beds has only changed by -1.4% since 2015, compared with -15.1% in Sweden and -23.1% in Finland.

The Good (kind of): Healthcare Spend 

Ireland spends nearly €5,000 (€4,819) on healthcare for each citizen, which is well above the EU average of €3,197 and almost €1,000 more than the UK. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Despite our healthcare spending going up, the spend has actually gone down in relation to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Income (GNI) which basically means that as we’ve gotten wealthier, we’re spending proportionally less on our healthcare.

Obviously, there are pitfalls in this. Our GDP is infamously connected to the repatriation of profits from US multinationals, so the GNI is a much better barometer for this comparison. The percentage did change in 2020 as our GNI & GDP constricted and our healthcare spending went up due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Bad (kind of): Doctors Per Capita 

Ireland ranks 22nd of 29 in Europe for doctors per capita, which ties in with the availability of hospital beds. However, of the countries that have fewer doctors per capita than us, each one has more hospital beds available – suggesting that their hospitals may be understaffed in relation to ours.

Ireland remains four places behind former EU member state the UK, while surprisingly edges out The Netherlands and Poland.

The Above Average: Treatable and Preventable Deaths  

Ireland is pretty good in an EU context for treatable and preventable deaths (those that can be treated with efficient healthcare systems and those that can be prevented through education and screening).

We rise above Germany, Belgium and the UK, but are beaten out by the Netherlands, Cyprus and Spain, for a safe and conciliatory 13th place out of 34.

The Not Great: Obesity 

It’s official – Ireland has the second highest rate of obesity in the EU, behind only Malta. More concerningly, we had a staggering rise in obesity numbers since 2014 – a 7.7% increase, the highest in the EU by far. 
25.9% of Ireland’s population is considered obese, according to their body mass index (BMI) score.

England and Scotland both have higher rates, at 28% and 27.5% respectively, suggesting it could be regional or diet based. However, their data is collected independently and not part of the EU figures, so they haven’t been included in this visualisation.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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