Efficient healthcare 'precondition for prosperous EU'

Policymakers must explore the use of EU level Instruments for improving Europe's Healthcare systems, argues José Inácio Faria.

By José Inácio Faria

04 Oct 2014

A good health status for our citizens is the primary key to social and economic progress and is a precondition for a prosperous EU. Now, the question is: 'Can we afford not to use every instrument at our disposal at European level in order to remove obstacles to more efficient and effective healthcare systems?'

The last few decades have seen a very substantial improvement in the health status of Europeans. A number of health indicators regarding life expectancy, prevalence of transmissible diseases and infant mortality, among others, provide a solid testimony of such remarkable human advancements. This enormous progress was underpinned by the organisational set-up and development of member states' own national healthcare systems, with (almost) ever increasing financial and organisational resources being devoted to these efforts.

"Another priority area for EU action is the fight against serious cross-border health threats, such as the current Ebola outbreak or the issue of antibiotic resistance, which require a coordinated approach"

Member states share the same principles of accessibility to healthcare, equity, and high level of health protection among their populations as their core values and this has allowed health protection to be enshrined in the European treaties, in respect of subsidiarity principles. Being an area of major national spending, health policy will remain a matter for national competence. However, in these times new instruments and an enhanced collaboration at EU level are required in order to provide adequate responses to the current challenges.

One major challenge relates to the sustainability of modern health systems. Healthcare and long-term care-related expenditure is expected to continue growing due to factors such as an ageing population, individual health expectations and technological innovation. The economic recession in the EU and the rise of unemployment and poverty has contributed to a worsened level of public health in many countries. Abrupt budgetary cuts not only caused further health inequalities, they also led to new inefficiencies and increased waiting lists for the provision of healthcare.

Efficiency-enhancing reforms of national healthcare systems can be underpinned by international comparative analysis aiming at identifying and deploying best practices and better organisational frameworks. The EU needs to play a stronger role in this regard.

Enormous benefits both to citizens and to healthcare systems can be achieved through initiatives at the EU level. An illustrative example is the legislation adopted recently on the patients' rights in cross-border healthcare directive. Not only does it bring direct benefits to citizens who can access medical care in other member states, but it also allows the exploration of synergies between national healthcare systems for the treatment of rare diseases, or the cooperation between national authorities in assessing the efficacy and effectiveness of new technologies, avoiding duplication of work and better spending of taxpayers' money. Rapid implementation of such legislation by the member states is the next important step.

"The economic recession in the EU and the rise of unemployment and poverty has contributed to a worsened level of public health in many countries"

Another priority area for EU action is the fight against serious cross-border health threats, such as the current Ebola outbreak or the issue of antibiotic resistance, which require a coordinated approach. For example, antibiotic resistance, mostly due to human and veterinary antibiotic misuse and pollution of the environment with antibiotics is presently causing some 25,000 deaths annually. Antimicrobials are used in a number of life-saving and life-improving clinical interventions for which there is no alternative, and, as such, this problem represents a growing threat. Effective action can only be taken at a supranational level by a concerted plan to educate, communicate and monitor the adequate use of antibiotics in order to contain the risks of antibiotic resistance.

A good health status is an issue of major concern for most European citizens and therefore one that needs to remain high on the political agenda. Legislative and financial instruments such as the cohesion funds or Horizon 2020 for research and innovation are all-important in order to promote innovation in healthcare services, promoting health outcomes and the sustainability of national healthcare systems. I expect that the European parliament and its environment, public health and food safety committee embrace the importance of these goals in the current legislature and I look forward to engaging in this effort.

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