In 2010, health spending across the European Union (EU) declined for the first time since 1975, and growth in pharmaceutical expenditures ground to a halt, say new figures.

Health spending per capita fell 0.6% across the region, declining from an average annual growth rate of 4.6% between 2000 and 2009 as government austerity measures began to bite, according to a new joint report produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission. 

The declines among individual EU nations were much greater. Health spending in Ireland, which had been growing by an average of 6.5% a year between 2000 and 2009, fell 7.9% in 2010, while for Estonia, where annual growth had been over 7% in the previous 10 years, the drop was 7.3%. And estimates for Greece put 2010's decline at 6.7%, compared to annual growth of 5.7% during 2000-2009

Health spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was highest in the Netherlands (12%) in 2010, followed by France and Germany, both on 11.6%. The share of GDP allocated to health was 9.0% across all EU countries, down from 9.2% in 2009.

Pharmaceutical expenditure accounted for 19% of all health spending on average in EU member states in 2010, reaching more than 190 billion euros overall and making it the third biggest spending component after inpatient and outpatient care, the study notes. However, it also finds wide variations in drug spending per capita throughout the region.

The biggest spender on medicines per capita was Ireland, at 528 euros, which is 50% above the EU-wide average of 349 euros. Other countries with relatively high pharmaceutical expenditures are Germany, which spent 492 euros per capita in 2010, Belgium on 479 euros and France at 468 euros. 

At the other end of the scale, Romania spent only 164 euros per capita, and other countries which spent less than 70% of the EU average for the year included Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Poland.

Pharmaceutical spending accounted for 1.6% of GDP on average across EU member states, ranging from below 1% in nations such as Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway to more than 2% in Bulgaria, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Serbia.

Looking at the effects of the economic crisis on pharmaceutical expenditures, the report notes that while such spending had risen by an average 3.2% each year across the EU during 2000-9, in 2010 this growth came to a halt. In Ireland, which had seen annual spending increases of more than 8% during the previous 10 years, growth slowed to under 2%, while several other countries severely affected by the economic crisis cut their drugs spending drastically during the year - Iceland's spending fell 6.3%, Lithuania's 4.6% and Portugal's 3.3%.

The reduction or slowdown in health spending in nearly all EU countries may have a long-term impact on health care outcomes, the report warns.