Friday, January 28, 2011

Country Profile: Belgium

Population 10,400,000

Government Federal parliamentary democracy

Health Care Model Bismarck

GDP 395B (2010 est.)

%GDP spent on health care 9.5

Per capita income $37,900

Health care expense per capita 3,563 (adj.)

Health care expense per capita normalized to income of 50K 4,700

Life expectancy (m/f) 77/82

Health life expectancy (m/f) 69/73

  • Goals: Increasing access, ensuring quality of care, sustainability of system
  • Universal access
  • Choice of provider
  • Broad set of benefits
  • Mix of public and private funding
  • Economic efficiency of delivery comparable to other European nations
  • Regulated at national level
  • Preventive care and health promotion delivered at regional and community levels
The Belgian health care system is organized around a "principle of solidarity" that recognizes no distinction between rich and poor, healthy and sick, with no selection of risk. Based on the Bismarck concept of social insurance, the system covers more than 99% of the Belgian population with more than 8000 services. Treatment decisions are made by doctor and patient, and patients are free to choose their own doctor. 

Health policy decisions are split between Belgium's federal government, regions, and communities. The national government regulates and finances the system; among other responsibilities, regions and communities deliver public and preventive health and coordinate primary and palliative care.

Financing occurs through a combination of progressive taxation, social security taxes, a consumption tax, and out-of-pocket payments (20%). Six private, noncommercial sickness funds provide compulsory health insurance to all Belgians regardless of economic status, medical condition, or risk; a federal agency supplies a budget to the sickness funds. Patients make a co-pay to physicians or hospitals, which bill the sickness fund for the remainder. Occasionally, patients make an out-of-pocket payment.

Although primary care is typically the first point of contact for a patient and the health care system, there is no formal referral system. Thus for many patients, the specialist is the initial contact. Ambulatory care practices are private and paid via fee-for-service.

Belgium offers two forms of hospitalization: general (acute, specialty, and geriatric) and psychiatric. Alternatives include day hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as community services of the elderly and the mentally ill.

While communities have responsibility for most public health services, including education and preventive care, they have on occasion collaborated with the federal government to coordinate and finance public health activities such as immunization and breast cancer screening.
Generally, the federal government sets policy and sets targeted taxes. For example, Belgian taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are designed at the federal level to discourage consumption. However, Belgium's Flemish, French, and German communities establish policies for their particular health needs.

Belgium's health care challenges are familiar: The elder population will double over the next 25 years, creating budgetary and capacity difficulties. Moreover, aggregate costs will rise as medical inflation continues to outstrip general inflation. As a result, the federal government and the community government will struggle to meet the commitments to access, quality, and sustainability. 

According to the Brookings Institution,
Devoting only half as much of its GDP to health as the United States does, Belgium has created a flexible, public-private partnership to pay for and deliver health care that preserves many of the attributes that Americans desire: universal coverage; comprehensive coverage of physician services, hospital care, and prescription drugs; free choice of primary physicians and specialists; and acceptable waiting periods for non-emergency services.
WHO Ranking  21 (US 37)

To read more about Belgium's health care system, click here and here.


  1. Wow. That's all i can say, is, wow. Are we on the wrong track or what, K.? Great post and a terrific new blog, my friend. Thanks for your work!

  2. Thanks, MP. I believe that regarding their health care, Americans must accept a a couple of things:

    1. That we don't actually have anything that can be called a system, and that what we do have is not serving us well;

    2. That we can learn from other nations without having to adopt their specific model.

    As in the field of medicine, we should understand that best practices are in the best interest of everyone, and we must learn what those practices are and apply them.