Demography and diversity are new opportunities for Europe

Demographic change is a huge challenge for healthcare systems across Europe, but this year’s Gastein health forum will look for solutions, promises Helmut Brand.

Demography and diversity are new opportunities for Europe | Photo credit: Fotolia

By Helmut Brand

29 Sep 2016

This year’s European Health Forum Gastein delves into the very core of Europe’s insecurities by exploring some of the perceived threats of ‘old’ and ‘new’ demographic change.

‘Old’ demographic change consists of ageing populations, low fertility rates in most member states and migration in Europe (especially regarding the health workforce), due to EU enlargement and free movement. This has been a driver of change, but it has been slow, giving us time to prepare and find solutions.

‘New’ demographic change is different. The migration crisis and Brexit, along with its as yet unknown consequences, were sudden and unexpected, leaving no time for preparation. Both of these have profoundly impacted our governments, as well as policymaking and politics.


If we consider the current changes in Europe’s population, it is no surprise that - in close interplay with the financial crisis and heightening nationalist tendencies in a number of member states - European policymaking is becoming troubling and tiresome.

Even in our health systems, the challenges presented by the current situation are enormous. We are faced with a higher burden of chronic diseases because people now live longer, and there are more diverse demands on health systems as a result of increasing internal and external. But there is hope. In

Gastein, we will discuss and showcase how we can successfully manage the ‘old’ demographic change. 

Ageing does not have to ruin health systems and does not automatically mean restricted access to healthcare. We can already move from analysis to action. There are accompanying trends, such as growing fertility rates in Europe.

We must not lose sight of the opportunities these demographic trends bring - if we acknowledge them and make them work for us. Workforce shortages can - at least partly and in the medium-term - be counteracted by the increased influx of migrants, and we can work on policies that help keep the experience of older workers in the market for longer.

The latest expression of outspoken Euroscepticism is Brexit. What’s next? We don’t know yet, but this is one of the issues this year’s forum will set out to explore. Here, we must move from reaction to strategy. The UK’s vote to leave the EU is only the tip of the iceberg. The fear of what increased diversity may bring - or take away - was one of the factors propelling the Leave campaign to victory.

What is especially worrying is looking at the change of political rhetoric regarding Brexit (but also in Russia and the US), we might be entering a time of ‘post-truth politics’. The danger is that this might also creep into healthcare - an area in which we have all worked hard on the implementation of evidence-based medicine and evidence-informed policymaking.

A number of sessions will explore topics related to inclusive health systems and overcoming intercultural and systemic barriers to integration.

The refugee crisis is still waiting to be appropriately addressed. We must develop mid- and long-term strategies now.

These are some of the more recent issues that have been monopolising the front pages of our newspapers. However, the conference agenda will also feature long-term developments in demographic change. 

Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugman will head a more general discussion on population ageing and its related economic aspects. The greying of the baby boomers defines a unique challenge for several continents. Are there already any solutions from which we can learn?

Other sessions will take a closer look at issues such as the challenges of dementia and other chronic diseases for health systems. Age specific incident rates for Alzheimer’s seem to slow down and new therapeutic possibilities are leaving the experimental phase. Is this already the beginning of the reversing trend we have all been waiting for?

Perhaps in a few years patients will receive their prescription via smartphones. Interest in eHealth and health apps is on the rise. Health insurers are also beginning to take an interest in this topic, supporting the health literate citizens of today.

This year more than ever, we want to invite you to think not only in terms of problems and risks. Rather, Gastein identifies opportunities and how to grasp them. 

At this point, the bulk of the policy debate is about what individual EU member states might lose. In fact, we, as a European community, have a lot to gain. A new ‘silver economy’, a continent that is even richer in diversity, and health systems that are more efficient.


Read the most recent articles written by Helmut Brand - EU must not let budgetary constraints damage public health

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