A few days ago the European Commission released a 16-page summary of healthcare in Hungary. As I was gazing at the innumerable graphs in the pamphlet, what struck me was that in most cases Hungary was close to the bottom, together with Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania, just as was the case yesterday when I was looking at Hungarian 15-year-olds’ PISA scores. Yes, economic well-being, the level of educational attainment, and health correlate strongly.
The pamphlet is chock full of information, so I have to be selective. Although, according to Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, undersecretary in charge of healthcare, good basic healthcare “first and foremost is not a question of money,” I consider it significant that Hungary spends half the European Union average on healthcare. I’m also convinced that the fact that a Hungarian’s contribution to his own medical expenses is almost 30%, double the European Union average, considerably impacts the poor health statistics in Hungary. Only 56% of Hungarians consider themselves to be in good health.
Life expectancy in Hungary is almost five years lower than the EU average–75.7 as opposed to 80.6. Hungary is at the bottom, along with Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Lithuania. As could be expected, there is a huge difference between the highly educated and the less educated strata of society when it comes to life expectancy. Economic inequality is also an important factor. Ever since 2007 economic and social inequality has been growing in Hungary. At the moment 35% of Hungarians live in poverty, and within that group 19% experience extreme hardship and occasional or regular hunger. The EU average for these two metrics is 17% and 10%.
Naturally, not all of the miseries of Hungarian health can be chalked up to a lack of money and poverty. According to several independent assessments, 40% of all illnesses are connected in one way or the other to unhealthy lifestyles. Hungary ranks fourth highest in the European Union when it comes to unhealthy lifestyles, right after, guess, Romania, Bulgarian, and Latvia. What are the main risk factors? Diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise. According to this survey, 26% of adults smoke, the third highest in the European Union. Every third man and every fifth woman is a regular smoker. The number of smokers among people with little education is twice that of university graduates. What is truly upsetting is that 20% of 15-year-olds are regular smokers. The EU average is 14%.
Twenty-one percent of all Hungarians are described as “nagyivók” (big drinkers). It is hard to tell whether this is a euphemism for alcoholism. I read elsewhere that the number of alcoholics might be close to one million, which would be roughly 10% of the population. Apparently in the last 17 years alcohol consumption has been slowly decreasing, but it’s still about 10% higher than the EU average of 10.9 liters per adult. Drinking also starts early. Forty percent of 15-year-olds reported that they had been drunk at least twice in their lives. This figure is the second highest, after Denmark.
As for obesity, the numbers are up year after year. In 2000 only 18% of Hungarian adults were overweight, but by 2014 it was 21%. Again, Hungary is leading the way, along with Malta and Latvia. As we know from other countries, the United States for example, obesity is greatest among the poor. In Hungary 25% of those belonging to the lowest economic strata are overweight, while only one-sixth of the better-off are.
The section on mortality statistics is not exactly heartwarming. The greatest killer of women is cardiovascular disease. In 2014, 35,000 women died as a result of heart problems, which was 55% of all deaths that year. Men actually fared better: only 47% of all male deaths could be attributed to cardiovascular disease. These numbers are double the EU averages. According to estimates, the reasons for these high numbers are smoking, obesity, and, yes, inadequate medical care. Cancer is the second greatest killer, accounting for 23% of female and 29% of male deaths. Every third Hungarian has high blood pressure and every twentieth has asthma.
Perhaps the saddest part of the study is the performance of Hungarian healthcare. Hungary is again one of the leaders, alongside Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, in the number of preventable deaths, which is double the European average. The Hungarian healthcare system loses 192.3 women and 361.3 men per 100,000 due to preventable deaths. The European Union average is 97.5 and 158.2 respectively. One reason for the high numbers is “the deficiency of acute medical care.” Fifteen percent of heart attack patients die within 30 days after being admitted to a hospital, the third highest in the European Union. There are also “questions concerning the quality of medical care of cancer patients.” Relatively few people go for screening for lung and breast cancer, which might be due in part to the endless waiting lists and the hours of waiting even if one has an appointment. I was told that the Hungarian system simply can’t cope with regular physicals and most preventive medicine. It cannot even keep up with those who are seriously ill.
The report card is not pretty, and Magyar Idők decided that the best thing was to forget about it. Writing an article on it would only confuse the Hungarian people.