The major finding of this study is that almost half of patients presenting to the vascular emergency department could have been treated at the primary health care level or via ordinary patient referral to vascular outpatient clinics. This agrees with reports from USA, Canada and Europe [3–6] and may be explained by the structure of the Greek health care system.
The Greek health care system is a mixed public and private health care system, which is fully accessible to the entire population, whereas at the same time an overdeveloped private sector is also available and plays an important role in the overall health care. In Greece, health care services are provided by a) the National Health System (public hospitals and health centres in rural and semi-urban areas), which is free; b) the health insurance funds (health centres with physicians), which are also free; c) the private sector (hospitals, diagnostic centres, private practitioners) that require payment. Health insurance funds are public schemes financed by employees, employers and the public budget. It is obligatory for the entire workforce (including their families) to be insured in one of the 8 different health insurance funds, selection depending on professional status . Importantly, every patient is entitled to visit any hospital he or she prefers without any physician referral as a prerequisite. This unique liberty reflects the absence of well-organised and reliable primary health care. Especially the less affluent parts of society (immigrants, poorer subjects and those with chronic drug abuse) make use of this liberty.
This also applies to vascular emergency departments [1, 2]. Indeed, first aid in public hospitals in Greece and many other countries is free for all, irrespective of nationality, professional status, duration of residence in the country and identification as to whether residence is legal or not [2, 4, 7] Secondly, anybody can visit emergency departments at any time, without prior appointment, which does not necessitate absence from work [1, 2, 8] Thirdly, emergency departments are accessible without bureaucracy, thereby minimising potential linguistic, cultural and other barriers [1, 2, 4, 7, 8].
Of note, the majority of presenting patients belonged to the less affluent parts of society (immigrants, less well-off subjects, or those with chronic drug abuse). Such subjects resort to emergency departments because they cannot afford private health care and they may even lack insurance, so that access to insurance-covered resources (outpatient clinics in hospitals, health centres) is very difficult[1, 2]. This agrees with previous reports from other countries as well [9, 10].
Our findings suggest that the structure of the Greek health care system needs to be improved. Three changes appear to be particularly important. First, the role of primary health care needs to be strengthened. This involves increasing the number of general practitioners but also providing them with more time, resources and authority to diagnose and provide first treatment. Secondly, some control over patient referral to specialised centres is desirable. Such control may be expected to enable timely patient allocation to the most suitable care level, preventing financial and personnel exhaustion in tertiary care centres. Thirdly, we need to revise legislation relating to health care facilities offered to immigrants and less affluent subjects, in order to enable them to use primary health care and outpatient clinics for simple health problems rather than frequenting emergency departments. These, and possibly other changes, may require time and effort from health policy makers to be implemented, but they have potential to contribute to a more rational use of emergency departments and other health care facilities.