EU in need of 'sustainable and patient-centred' health policies

According to Helmut Brand, 'there is plenty of need and plenty of room for new ideas' in European health policy

By Helmut Brand

29 Sep 2014

This year's theme at the European health forum Gastein (EHFG), 'Electing health – The Europe we want!' could hardly be more topical. The elections to the European parliament, the appointment of a new president of the commission and the new college of commissioners including new commissioners with health responsibilities – all of this marks an important point in time for EU politics in general and for health policy in particular. This year's EHFG conference will reflect on the opportunities and risks for health in this newly structured political scene. We will discuss how to maintain and improve the health of European citizens. Gastein offers a unique forum to discuss future developments with all stakeholders involved.

Once again around 600 participants from more than 45 countries will take advantage of the EHFG this year as a unique platform for an exchange of opinions among decision makers, NGOs, patient advocates and providers of healthcare services, as well as science and industry.

"In order to meet visions of a social and prosperous Europe, we need politicians and stakeholders who will champion smart, sustainable and inclusive policies while maintaining strong values"

Over the last two years, EHFG has monitored the effects the financial crisis had on health. We explored in what way the crisis and austerity programmes had a (negative) impact on people's health, and how health systems can become resilient while remaining open to innovation. Our conclusion was that there is a need for sustainable and patient-centred policies, a renewed commitment to health in all policies and governance structures that are tailor-made and that follow the principles of transparency and accountability.

In order to meet visions of a social and prosperous Europe, we need politicians and stakeholders who will champion smart, sustainable and inclusive policies while maintaining strong values, such as universality, access to good quality care, equity and solidarity. In the course of the conference, we will address a number of important questions in this regard, such as possible developments of the European social model and its core values; what should be the EU's role in health and health systems in the next 20 years; how the current policy frameworks and instruments will have to be used or reviewed in order for the EU to fulfil its role in promoting, protecting and restoring the health of its citizens; and what the EU can contribute to improving the performance and efficiency of member states' health systems.

In summary, and as ambitious as this may seem, this year at EHFG we will debate no less and no more than what should be on the agenda of the European parliament and the European commission for the next five years – and beyond.

There have been 'missed opportunities' during the 20 years since the EU obtained a health mandate. Examples include the failure to create a real link with social policy, persistently weak policies on food and on alcohol, the continuing absence of a health information system and the reluctance to use internal market rules as a basis for legislation. At present, the European commission's health strategy is largely a compilation of issues to be addressed, rather than a policy document that sets priorities, assigns responsibilities and outlines methods of implementation and assessment.

"The European commission's health strategy is largely a compilation of issues to be addressed, rather than a policy document that sets priorities, assigns responsibilities and outlines methods of implementation and assessment"

But it can still be developed into a real strategy. Major components could be an EU role in generating comparable information for assessing the performance of health systems and ensuring that public health receives greater attention in the country-specific recommendations at the core of the European semester.

There is plenty of need and plenty of room for new ideas. Imagination – and inspiration – might be triggered by notable successes in other policy areas. Look, for instance, at the popularity enjoyed by EU actions to cut roaming charges on mobile phones. Even Eurosceptics can see the benefits of initiatives like this. What we need now are equally compelling initiatives with a beneficial impact on health.

I am convinced that in the course of this EHFG 2014 congress, we will identify promising and innovative approaches in this respect. Thanks to the experts, stakeholders and decision makers it attracts, the EHFG has the potential not only to ask the important questions, but also to venture for the possible answers – and it will demonstrate once again that it is a veritable incubator when it comes to developing visions for the future of health and health policy in Europe and beyond.

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