Where in Europe do people see the doctor the most and least and why is it widely different?

Doctors visits range across Europe, with people in Slovakia seeing their GP more annually. Greeks visited their doctors the least.
Doctors visits range across Europe, with people in Slovakia seeing their GP more annually. Greeks visited their doctors the least. Copyright Canva
By Servet Yanatma
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The frequency of doctor visits varies significantly across Europe, but data shows people are less likely to get a consultation when nurses play a role.

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COVID-19 caused a challenging environment for healthcare services, putting medical professionals under immense strain and affecting access to consultations in many specialties unrelated to the pandemic. 

Health authorities are working to reduce waiting times for consultations and treatments, but the frequency of seeing a doctor varies across Europe. 

Differences in health service delivery and payment methods can explain some of these variations across countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

How often do Europeans go to a doctor? Which countries have the least and most average number of doctor consultations per person? How many consultations does a doctor make in a year in European countries?

In 2021, the frequency of medical consultations varied widely across Europe, according to Eurostat, the EU's official statistical office. 

On average, people in Slovakia, Germany, and Hungary made 11.1, 9.6, and 9.4 annual visits to consult a doctor respectively, the highest averages among the EU members. 

At the reverse end of the spectrum, people in Sweden (2.3) and Greece (2.7) made an average of less than 3 visits a year to doctors, the lowest rates in the EU.

The average number of doctor consultations per person was between 4 and 8 in two-thirds of EU members. This included Poland (7.6), Belgium (6.7), France (5.5), Italy (5.3) and Spain (4.8).

People in Nordic countries had fewer consultations

Regarding the geographic division, as seen in the map below, Nordic European countries reported a much lower number of doctor consultations per person. 

In 2021, people in Sweden saw a doctor 2.3 times on average. This figure was less than four visits in Denmark (3.8) and Norway (3.9), followed by Finland with 4.1 consultations.

On the other hand, EU candidate countries in the Balkans had a higher number of doctor consultations per person, ranging from 6.5 in Montenegro to 8 in Turkey.

Compared with the 2018–2020 annual average, the average number of doctor consultations decreased in 19 of the 24 EU members for which data were available. 

The exceptions were less than a 5 per cent increase. The largest decreases in the average number of doctor consultations were recorded in Italy (–39 per cent), Lithuania (–24 per cent) and Spain (–20 per cent).

Why do they differ so much?

The difference in the average number of doctor consultations per person among European countries is striking. 

In 2021, this figure in Slovakia (11) was almost 5 times that in Sweden (2.3). In Germany (9.6), the number of doctor visits was double that of Spain (4.8).

Some of the variations across countries can be explained by differences in health service delivery and payment mechanisms, according to the OECD.

Nurses play a significant role in some countries

Nurses and other health professionals play a significant role in primary care centres, reducing the need to see doctors in some countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Ireland according to a OECD report, which is entitled Health at a Glance: Europe 2020: State of Health in the EU Cycle. “Nurses can also play a greater role in the management of patients with chronical diseases and in dealing with patients with minor health issues in these countries,” the report said.

Role of payment mechanisms

Some countries such as Slovakia, Germany and Czechia, which pay their doctors mainly by fee-for-service, tend to have higher consultation rates than other countries where doctors are mainly paid by salaries or capitation like in Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

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“The level of co-payment may also explain some of the variations across countries,” the OECD report found. For example, patient co-payments are high for a large proportion of the population in Switzerland and Ireland, which may result in fewer consultations per person.

How many consultations does a doctor make in a year?

Looking at the estimated number of consultations per doctor, the OECD data shows that doctors are extremely busy in some countries, forced to see more patients than their colleagues in other countries. In 2021, this rate ranged from 428 consultations in Greece to 2,997 in Slovakia in the EU. Turkey ranked at the top by far among OECD members in Europe, where doctors made more than 3,500 consultations. This figure was slightly over 5,000 in 2019.

Huge differences exist across the countries. Doctors in Nordic countries see fewer patients. Apart from Turkey, the estimated number of consultations per doctor was above 2,000 in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.

"This indicator should not be taken as a measure of doctors' productivity," the OECD report warned because consultations can vary in length and effectiveness. 

It also excludes other services delivered by doctors for hospital inpatients, time spent on research, administration or care coordination, as well as new ways of interacting with patients.

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Availability of doctors

In 2021, the EU had an estimated 1.82 million practicing physicians, according to Eurostat. The highest number of practicing physicians was recorded in the EU's "Big Four": Germany (377,000, equivalent to 21 per cent of the EU total), followed by Italy (243,000), France (216,000), and Spain (213,000).

In 2021, Austria recorded the highest number of physicians per 100,000 people with 541. 

When the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and EU candidate countries are included, Austria is followed by Norway (516), Cyprus (491) and Germany (453).

The estimated number of physicians per 100,000 people in France was just 318, the lowest ratio in the EU. 

The EU candidate countries recorded the lowest proportion. It was 218 in Turkey, followed by Montenegro (281) and Serbia (303).

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