Healthcare in the Netherlands
Healthcare in the Netherlands can be divided in several ways: firstly in three different echelons; secondly in somatic versus mental healthcare; and thirdly in "cure" (short term) versus "care" (long term). Home doctors (huisartsen, comparable to general practitioners) form the largest part of the first echelon. Being referred by a first echelon professional is frequently required for access to treatment by the second and third echelons, or at least to qualify for insurance coverage for that treatment. The Dutch health care system is quite effective in comparison to other western countries but is not the most cost-effective. Costs are said to be high because of over-use of in-patient care, institutionalised psychiatric care and elderly care.
Acute and primary care
The Netherlands has a network of 160 acute primary care centres, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making an open clinic within easy reach for most people. Acute primary care is offered by a combination of 121 general practice health centers, that are open outside office hours, and a total of 94 medical emergency units with surgery facilities, of which 90 are at hospital locations, open 24/7. In 71 cases general practice services and emergency rooms are found in one hospital location, bringing the total number of locations where acute care is offered to 160. Analysis by the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment showed that 99.8 percent of the people can be transported to an emergency unit / casualty ward, or a hospital offering emergency obstetrics within 45 minutes in 2015. 
For acute medical questions outside ones home doctor's office hours, a general doctors health practice can be called by phone, and advice will be given by the doctor and their assistant. If the issue seems to be urgent, the caller will be advised to come to the practice, and if necessary referred to an emergency room for more serious treatment. For severe medical emergencies, the Netherlands uses 112 to call an ambulance.
Electronic health records
The vast majority of GPs and all pharmacies and hospitals use Electronic health records. In hospitals, computerized order management and medical imaging systems (PACS) are widely accepted. Whereas healthcare institutions continue to upgrade their EHR's functionalities, the national infrastructure is still far from being generally accepted.
In 2012 the national EHR restarted under the joined ownership of GPs, pharmacies and hospitals. A major change is that, as of January 2013, patients have to give their explicit permission that their data may be exchanged over the national infrastructure. The national EHR is a virtual EHR and is a reference server which "knows" in which local EHR what kind of patient record is stored. EDIFACT still is the most common way to exchange patient information electronically between hospitals and GP's.
See also Electronic health record.
A programme of mammography screening for breast cancer was started in 1989 for women aged 50–69, and was extended to women aged 70–75 in 1997. A study of effectiveness and overdiagnosis of the programme was published in the British Medical Journal in 2017. It had little impact on death rates. The incidence of stage 2-4 breast cancers in women aged 50 or more was 168 per 100,000 in 1989 and 166 per 100,000 in 2012. About half of the cancers detected were over-diagnosed.
Most hospitals in the Netherlands are privately run, non-profit foundations, whereas most healthcare insurers are for-profit companies. There are some 90 hospital organisations in the Netherlands, with some of them running multiple actual physical hospitals, usually as a result of mergers of previously independent hospitals.
In general, there are three types of hospitals in the Netherlands: university hospitals, general hospitals, and a category in between that call themselves "top-clinical" teaching hospitals. There are eight academic hospitals, or university medical centers, each of which is directly connected with the medicine faculty of a major Dutch university. These are the largest hospitals in the country, and they have the largest number and greatest variety of specialists and researchers working in them. They are able to provide the most complex and specialised treatment.
Between 26 and 28 hospital organizations are members of the STZ (Samenwerkende Topklinische opleidingsZiekenhuizen), the collaborative association of top-clinical teaching hospitals. Although not directly tied to one particular university, these are large hospitals that house the full range of medical specialists (hence "top-clinical"), and that can offer both standard and complex care. The top-clinical teaching hospitals collaborate with university hospitals to aid in the education of nurses and medicine students, as well as to offer certain more specialised treatments. Interns frequently accompany doctors during procedures. Aside from training a lot of medical professionals, each top-clinical hospital specializes in one or two specific disciplines, and conducts its own research to stay ahead in its particular field of expertise. The research done is particularly patient-centric, and focused on improving the practical application and achieving the best results for patients.
The remaining general hospitals provide high standard healthcare for less specialised problems. They will, if necessary, refer patients to more specialised facilities.
Most insurance packages allow patients to choose where they want to be treated. To help patients choose, the Dutch government has set up websites where information is gathered (Zorginzicht) and disclosed (KiesBeter) about provider performance. Patients dissatisfied with their healthcare insurance can choose another insurance package at the end of each year (with few exceptions).
In 2015 the Netherlands maintained its number one position at the top of the annual Euro health consumer index, which compares healthcare systems in Europe, scoring 916 of a maximum 1,000 points. The Netherlands is the only country that has been in the top three ranking in every Euro health consumer index published since 2005. On 48 indicators such as patient rights and information, accessibility, prevention and outcomes, the Netherlands secured its top position among 37 European countries for the fifth year in a row. The Netherlands was also ranked first in a study comparing the health care systems of the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand.
Ever since a major reform of the health care system in 2006, the Dutch system received more points in the Index each year. According to the Health Consumer Powerhouse, the Netherlands has 'a chaos system', meaning patients have a great degree of freedom from where to buy their health insurance, to where they get their healthcare service. But the difference between the Netherlands and other countries is that the chaos is managed. Healthcare decisions are being made in a dialogue between the patients and healthcare professionals.
A comparison of consumer experiences over time yielded mixed results in 2009, and a 2010 review indicated it was too early to tell whether the reform has led to gains in efficiency and quality.
However, in November 2007 the leading peer-reviewed journal of health policy thought and research published the results of a survey of adults' health care experiences in the Netherlands, Germany and five English-speaking countries. The survey Toward Higher-Performance Health Systems revealed that the Dutch public stood out for its positive views. Of the Dutch adults surveyed, 59 percent said that they were very confident of receiving high quality and safe health care, compared to only 35 percent of the American adults surveyed.
Based on public statistics, patient polls, and independent research the Netherlands arguably has the best health care system of 32 European countries. In 2009, Health Consumer Powerhouse research director, Dr. Arne Bjornberg, commented:  "As the Netherlands [is] expanding [its] lead among the best performing countries, the [Euro Health Consumer] Index indicates that the Dutch might have found a successful approach. It combines competition for funding and provision within a regulated framework. There are information tools to support active choice among consumers. The Netherlands [has] started working on patient empowerment early, which now clearly pays off in many areas. And politicians and bureaucrats are comparatively far removed from operative decisions on delivery of Dutch healthcare services!"
Waiting lists in the Netherlands increased since the 1980s due to budgets imposed on the hospital sector although waits remained low compared to many countries. Several changes were implemented to reduce waiting times by increasing supply of hospital care. In 2001, fixed hospital budgets were replaced with (capped) activity-based payments to hospitals. In addition government limits which had lengthened waits by limiting the number of hospital specialists eligible for payment from Social Health Insurance funds (covering 2/3s of the population) was removed. Mean waits for all inpatient cases fell from 8.6 weeks to 5.5 in 2003, and from 6.4 to 5.1 weeks for outpatient cases.
In 2005, as part of health care reforms, a per-case payment system for hospital care was introduced. Over time, the percent of cases where hospitals and insurers could negotiate the volume and price of each type of case increased. Health insurers also monitored waiting times (which hospitals must publish), and assisted patients with finding the shortest waits (sometimes abroad). Specialists's fixed lump-sum payments were replaced with a payment per patient case, which increased their activity greatly. Mean waits for most surgery were 5 weeks or less by 2011 (Siciliani, Borowitz and Moran, 2013, pp. 184, 187, 189-195).
In 2010, 70% of Dutch respondents to the Commonwealth Fund 2010 Health Policy Survey in 11 Countries said they waited less than 4 weeks to see a specialist. A further 16% said they waited 2 months or more. Regarding surgery, 59% reported waiting less than 4 weeks for elective surgery and only 5% waited 4 months or more, similar to American respondents.
Health insurance in the Netherlands is mandatory. Healthcare in the Netherlands is covered by two statutory forms of insurance:
- Zorgverzekeringswet (Zvw), often called ‘basic insurance’, covers common medical care.
- Wet langdurige zorg (Wlz) covers long-term nursing and care. (Formerly known as Algemene Wet Bijzondere Ziektekosten (AWBZ)).
While Dutch residents are automatically insured by the government for Wlz, everyone has to take out their own basic healthcare insurance (basisverzekering), except those under 18 who are automatically covered under their parents' premium. If you don't take out insurance, you risk a fine. Insurers have to offer a universal package for everyone over the age of 18 years, regardless of age or state of health – in most cases it's illegal to refuse an application or impose special conditions, but not always. In contrast to many other European systems, the Dutch government is responsible for the accessibility and quality of the healthcare system in the Netherlands, but not in charge of its management.
Healthcare in the Netherlands is financed by a dual system that came into effect in January 2006. Long-term treatments, especially those that involve semi-permanent hospitalization, and also disability costs such as wheelchairs, are covered by a state-controlled mandatory insurance. This is laid down in the Wet langdurige zorg ("General Law on Longterm Healthcare") which first came into effect in 1968 under the name of Algemene Wet Bijzondere Ziektekosten (AWBZ). In 2009 this insurance covered 27% of all health care expenses.
For all regular (short-term) medical treatment, there is a system of obligatory health insurance, with private health insurance companies. These insurance companies are obliged to provide a package with a defined set of insured treatments. This insurance covers 41% of all health care expenses.
Other sources of health care payment are taxes (14%), out of pocket payments (9%), additional optional health insurance packages (4%) and a range of other sources (4%). Affordability is guaranteed through a system of income-related allowances and individual and employer-paid income-related premiums.
A key feature of the Dutch system is that premiums may not be related to health status or age. Risk variances between private health insurance companies due to the different risks presented by individual policy holders are compensated through risk equalization and a common risk pool. Funding for all short-term health care is 50% from employers, 45% from the insured person and 5% by the government. Children under 18 are covered for free. Those on low incomes receive compensation to help them pay their insurance. Premiums paid by the insured are, on average, €111 per month for basic health care ('basisverzekering') (about US$133 in Apr. 2018) with variation of about 5% between the various competing insurers, and a mandatory personal sum ('eigen risico') of €385 (US$401) (in 2016, 2017 and 2018).
From 1941 to 2006, there were separate public and private systems of short-term health insurance. The public insurance system was implemented by non-profit health funds, and financed by premiums taken directly out of the wages (together with income taxes). Everyone earning less than a certain threshold qualified for the public insurance system. However, anyone with income over that threshold was obliged to have private insurance instead.
A new system of health care insurance based on risk equalization through a risk equalization pool was introduced in 2006. A compulsory insurance package is available to all citizens at affordable cost without the need for the insured to be assessed for risk by the insurance company. Indeed, health insurers are now willing to take on high risk individuals because they receive compensation for the higher risks.
A 2008 article in the journal Health Affairs suggested that the Dutch health system, which combines mandatory universal coverage with competing private health plans, could serve as a model for reform in the US. However, an assessment of the 2006 Dutch health insurance reforms published in Duke University's Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law in 2008 raised concerns. The analysis found that market-based competition in healthcare may not have the advantages over more publicly based single payer models that were originally envisioned for the reforms:
The first lesson for the United States is that the new (post-2006) Dutch health insurance model may not control costs. To date, consumer premiums are increasing, and insurance companies report large losses on the basic policies. Second, regulated competition is unlikely to make voters/citizens happy; public satisfaction is not high, and perceived quality is down. Third, consumers may not behave as economic models predict, remaining responsive to price incentives. If regulated competition with individual mandates performs poorly in auspicious circumstances such as the Netherlands, how will this model fare in the United States, where access, quality, and cost challenges are even greater? Might the assumptions of economic theory not apply in the health sector?
The Netherlands has a dual-level system. All primary and curative care (i.e. the family doctor service and hospitals and clinics) is financed from private mandatory insurance. Long term care for the elderly, the dying, the long term mentally ill etc. is covered by social insurance funded from earmarked taxation under the provisions of the Algemene Wet Bijzondere Ziektekosten, which came into effect in 1968.
Private insurance companies must offer a core universal insurance package for the universal primary curative care, which includes the cost of all prescription medicines. They must do this at a fixed price for all. The same premium is paid whether young or old, healthy or sick. It is illegal in The Netherlands for insurers to refuse an application for health insurance or to impose special conditions (e.g. exclusions, deductibles, co-payments, or refuse to fund doctor-ordered treatments). The system is 50% financed from payroll taxes paid by employers to a fund controlled by the Health regulator. The government contributes an additional 5% to the regulator's fund. The remaining 45% is collected as premiums paid by the insured directly to the insurance company. Some employers negotiate bulk deals with health insurers and some even pay the employees' premiums as an employment benefit. All insurance companies receive additional funding from the regulator's fund.
The regulator has sight of the claims made by policyholders and therefore can redistribute the funds it holds on the basis of relative claims made by policy holders. Thus insurers with high payouts receive more from the regulator than those with low payouts. Thus insurance companies have no incentive to deter high cost individuals from taking insurance and are compensated if they have to pay out more than a threshold. This threshold is set above the expected costs. Insurance companies compete with each other on price for the 45% direct premium part of the funding and should try to negotiate deals with hospitals to keep costs low and quality high. The competition regulator is charged with checking for abuse of dominant market positions and the creation of cartels that act against the consumer interests. An insurance regulator ensures that all basic policies have identical coverage rules so that no person is medically disadvantaged by his or her choice of insurer.
Insurance companies can offer additional services at extra cost over and above the universal system laid down by the regulator, e.g. for dental care. The standard monthly premium for health care paid by individual adults is about €100 per month. People on low incomes can get assistance from the government if they cannot afford these payments. Children under 18 are insured by the system at no additional cost to them or their families, because the insurance company receives the cost of this from the regulator's fund.
Dutch consumers and expats working in the Netherlands who are obliged to be mandatorily insured by Dutch law have the opportunity to switch insurance companies each year. The health insurance companies have to publish the premium for the coming year before 12 November. This is a week earlier than in 2016. The former Dutch minister of health Mrs. Edith Schippers gave an indication that the premiums could rise up to €5,- per month. When insured for health care customers can switch to a different insurer until 31 December. Or when the person insured cancels his/her insurance before the 31st they are allowed to choose until 31 January. Any health insurance costs will in that case be covered by the current health insurance agency until the switch is finalized.
Specific minority groups in Dutch society, most notably certain branches of orthodox Calvinism and Evangelical Christian groups, refuse to have insurance for religious reasons. To take care of these religious principled objections, the Dutch system provides a special opt-out clause. The amount of money for health care that would be paid by an employer in payroll taxes is in those cases not used for redistribution by the government, but instead, after request to the tax authorities, credited to a private health care savings account. The individual can draw from this account for paying medical bills, however if the account is depleted, one has to find the money elsewhere. If the person dies and the account still contains a sum, that sum is included in the inheritance.
If a person with a private health savings account changes his or her mind and wants to get insurance, the tax authorities release the remaining sum in the health account into the common risk pool.
The set of rules around the opt-out clauses have been designed in such way that people who do not want to be insured can opt out but not engage in a free ride on the system. However, ultimately health care providers are obliged to provide acute health care irrespective of insurance or financial status.
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- Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport
- English links to Dutch sources and organisations on the government website for public health and care.
- Dutch healthcare performance reports (in .pdf format), and related English articles, offered by the Dutch Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
- Changes health insurance Netherlands
- Student health insurance Providing clear information to foreign students, studying in the Netherlands.
- Health insurance 2017
- Health insurance 2018