From Iceland — Iceland's Healthcare System: How Does It Work?

Iceland’s Healthcare System: How Does It Work?

Iceland’s Healthcare System: How Does It Work?

Published December 9, 2014

Gabríel Benjamin
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Iceland maintains a universal healthcare system, under which all legal residents are covered by the Icelandic social insurance system. All hospital admissions are paid for by this system, as is the majority of the cost of outpatient appointments. There is a token fee to see General Practitioners (GPs) and specialists, with fees for the latter considerably higher, particularly after the economic collapse of 2008.

Iceland’s primary healthcare is split up into hospitals, health institutions and healthcare clinics. There are two hospitals, Landspítalinn, the National University Hospital of Iceland (hereafter referred to as LSH), which is located in Reykjavík and serves as a general and specialised university hospital; and Sjúkrahúsið á Akureyri, or Akureyri Hospital, a generalised and specialised teaching hospital located in Akureyri. There are furthermore twelve major health institutions along with numerous healthcare clinics spread out all over the country.

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Historian Jón Ólafur Ísberg says that Iceland’s medical system as a whole has mostly remained the same since the 1970s, when the neighbourhood healthcare clinics were founded. They provided people with primary health care, where individuals could seek medical help with or without an appointment. “Before that, GPs would visit infirm people in their own homes,” he says.

Unlike other northern European countries, Jón says, Iceland has never made a comprehensive medical plan, leaving progress to technological advances and the whims of medical professionals. “It’s the specialists who want bigger hospitals, newer equipment and fancier gadgets,” he says, “and that’s what gets prioritised.”

In another difference from other welfare societies, patients in Iceland don’t need referrals to see a specialist: they can go directly to them. “If you have a headache, you don’t have to first see to your GP,” Jón says, “you can go straight to a neurosurgeon, which is both unnecessary and costly for society as a whole.”

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The statistics show that there’s been a drastic increase in specialist visits in recent years—they went from 373,878 in 2003 to 493,678 in 2009 and then 658,855 in 2012—which is far more costly for the State, and a troubling development.

This article is a part of our feature on the country’s healthcare system, Squeezing Blood From A Turnip: Iceland’s Universal Healthcare At Risk. You may be interested in also reading:

Landspítali blood testsPrescribing Trouble: Iceland’s Social Insurance Explained

A look at how Iceland’s social insurance system has changed in recent years, and how some feel it isn’t working the way it was meant to.


LSH Down To The BoneDown To The Bone: The Healthcare System, Post-Austerity

The current shape and financial situation of Iceland’s healthcare system, and how the previous and current Minister of Health views the situation.


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