The evolution of the Italian National Health Service

Lancet. 2021 Oct 22;S0140-6736(21)01733-5. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01733-5. Online ahead of print.


40 years ago, Italy saw the birth of a national, universal health-care system (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale [SSN]), which provides a full range of health-care services with a free choice of providers. The SSN is consistently rated within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development among the highest countries for life expectancy and among the lowest in health-care spending as a proportion of gross domestic product. Italy appears to be in an envious position. However, a rapidly ageing population, increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, rising demand, and the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed weaknesses in the system. These weaknesses are linked to the often tumultuous history of the nation and the health-care system, in which innovation and initiative often lead to spiralling costs and difficulties, followed by austere cost-containment measures. We describe how the tenuous balance of centralised versus regional control has shifted over time to create not one, but 20 different health systems, exacerbating differences in access to care across regions. We explore how Italy can rise to the challenges ahead, providing recommendations for systemic change, with emphasis on data-driven planning, prevention, and research; integrated care and technology; and investments in personnel. The evolution of the SSN is characterised by an ongoing struggle to balance centralisation and decentralisation in a health-care system, a dilemma faced by many nations. If in times of emergency, planning, coordination, and control by the central government can guarantee uniformity of provider behaviour and access to care, during non-emergency times, we believe that a balance can be found provided that autonomy is paired with accountability in achieving certain objectives, and that the central government develops the skills and, therefore, the legitimacy, to formulate health policies of a national nature. These processes would provide local governments with the strategic means to develop local plans and programmes, and the knowledge and tools to coordinate local initiatives for eventual transfer to the larger system.

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  • Review