How can health services best implement the lessons of the pandemic? - Greek Dep. Health Min.

“When the Covid pandemic struck, nobody knew what it was. So we had to take care of patients who were getting worse and worse in front of our eyes,” she recounts.

 Deputy Health Minister of Greece Mina Gaga with Medicine 2042 Conference President Prof. Nadir Arber. (photo credit: SHAOULI LANDLER)
Deputy Health Minister of Greece Mina Gaga with Medicine 2042 Conference President Prof. Nadir Arber.
(photo credit: SHAOULI LANDLER)

Greece’s Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga hopes that her country will learn from the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and will use them to build a more stable and steady healthcare system, she tells The Jerusalem Post.

Speaking to The Post from the Medicine 2042 conference in Tel Aviv, Gaga recounts how she started the pandemic as a doctor working in the hospital taking in the majority of COVID-19 patients in Greece. She has since left that position, and, since August 2021, she has served as Greece’s Deputy Health Minister.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

“What we are facing and dealing with now is both COVID-19, as Greece has had the majority of its cases since I took over, but also reorganizing services,” she tells The Post.

“[We are] implementing all of the lessons that the pandemic taught us, and also trying to build a more steady health system that can deal with day-to-day matters, but also with crisis, as we have had to.”

When asked on some of the issues Greece faced during the pandemic, Gaga explains that, similar to Israel and many countries around the globe, they faced a severe shortage of ICU beds at the start of the pandemic.

 COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

“During the pandemic, Greece did not have enough ICU facilities. So we went from having under 600 ICU beds to increasing that number to over 1,200, which is a huge change. so there’s been new equipment, new services.”

The overcrowding of hospitals was also something that Greece struggled with during the height of the pandemic, Gaga explains.

“What we are facing and dealing with now is both COVID-19, as Greece has had the majority of its cases since I took over, but also reorganizing services.”

Greece’s Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga

“There are hospitals that were made to hold a total of 120 patients, with internal pulmonology departments equipped for about 30 patients. These sectors had to take care of 140 patients all with COVID at one moment.”

“I’m sure you had the same thing here [in Israel],” she adds.

Referring back to her time as a doctor treating COVID patients, Gaga stresses the importance of problem-solving in the face of the unknown, which COVID-19 very much was – and still is – in many aspects.

“When the COVID pandemic struck, nobody knew what it was. So we had to take care of patients who were getting worse and worse in front of our eyes,” she recounts.

“We had to sort of rely on previous experiences and make educated guesses on how to treat the patients and how to provide the best [care] for them. I think this is a huge lesson that we have to learn because evidence-based medicine is how we function. And here we had no evidence-based medicine.”

The cost of patient care

Two key issues that are important to Gaga, both in her role as Deputy Health Minister and also with her experience as a doctor working in a COVID-19 ward, are patient care and the cost of health services.

“What we’ve learned is that, in medicine, we need to be cooperative,” she said. “We need to respect the patient, which we do, of course. But it’s become more and more important to sort of have empathy, and to respect the patient’s wishes, within the limits of safe medicine.”

With that, however, the cost of healthcare cannot be ignored, and it is something she is very much focused on.

“The cost of health services is huge. And we have to deal with that and we have to understand what is worth spending the money on. And I’m sorry to say it like that, but expenditure is something that has limits.

“We need to do what is best for the majority of patients; we need to, of course, include expensive medications [in the cost]. But we need to be very certain of where we spend the money on in the health system so that everybody can access it.”

Will Greece and Israel collaborate on health in the future?

Gaga’s desire to build a more stable future for Greece’s health system is what led her to arrive in Tel Aviv for the Medicine 2042 conference, which is taking place on June 8-9. She is optimistic that the conference – with its focus on the future of medicine and science and what that might look like in the year 2042 and beyond – holds the solutions to the problems raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve already heard some striking presentations, some really, really good presentations on how to deal with what the future brings, in newer technology and newer techniques for driving new medications which we sorely need,” she tells The Post.

While in Israel, Gaga expresses hope that the future will see more medical collaboration between the two countries.

“There’s a lot of potential for collaboration,” she muses. “And as [Deputy] Minister of Health, I would really like to make these connections tighter and be able to work with both the doctors and the Health Ministry in Israel in a collaborative manner - it would be to the benefit of all patients.”