EU must not let budgetary constraints damage public health

A healthy EU requires the member states, European institutions and international organisations to work together, writes Helmut Brand.

By Helmut Brand

28 Sep 2015

The theme for the 18th European health forum Gastein is, 'securing health in Europe: balancing priorities, sharing responsibilities'. This highlights the different ways in which to maintain European citizens' health in challenging times.

In his first state of the union speech earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker argued that, "there is not enough Europe in this Union, and there is not enough Union in this Union."

Given the ongoing humanitarian tragedy taking place in the Mediterranean region, it's clear we are in dire need of an increased feeling of European solidarity. A single country cannot, on its own, accommodate the vast number of refugees pouring in from war-torn countries, nor can it address the root causes of their dislocation.


The refugee crisis isn't the only matter on which Europe must 'share responsibilities'. Another issue of growing importance is the financing of and access to medicines, set against the backdrop of the economic crisis and fiscal difficulties. 

This is especially the case when taking into account that the burden of many costly diseases is unequally distributed across Europe. Mechanisms such as joint procurement are become more of a necessity than a possibility.

The topic of budgetary constraints plays into wider questions related to the precarious balance of competing political interests, not only between national entities but also between policy sectors. This brings us back to an idea that is nothing new - health in all policies. 

Often discussed and refined in theory, it is flawed in practice and remains one of the biggest challenges today, both at European and national level. How can we join forces across different policy areas in order to improve public health?

These topics receive the lion's share of political and media attention, and other subjects are now competing for the spotlight.

These are related to long-term challenges to our health systems, often caused by dynamics and developments that are slow, yet unstoppable and irreversible. Demographic change has started to shift the demand for health and healthcare services and will continue to do so.

The burden of disease across the European Union is increasingly characterised by multi- and co-morbidities, and this will have lasting repercussions, not only on our health systems, but also on aspects such as workforce composition and the stability of our social security nets. 

Securing equitable access to healthcare, while at the same time safeguarding the high quality of this care, requires that member states, EU institutions and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, act together.

Assessing health systems' performance in the face of new and old challenges bears the potential for substantially more efficient healthcare delivery. The European semester and its cycle of recommendation and evaluation are just one example of how Europe is increasingly involved in shaping health systems.

The European health forum Gastein is designed to mirror ongoing policy issues, foresee future problems and provide a space for the development of new ideas. 

It also serves to remind us of other major issues. Just a few months ago, the big issue dominating health policymakers' agendas was Ebola. It may no longer feature on front pages due to more pressing issues, but Ebola is still relevant. 

There are a number of lessons to be learned here, and the question of how we can efficiently tackle cross-border health threats will be addressed at the forum in more than one way.

Last but not least, when talking about how to secure the health of European citizens against current and future challenges, we should not bypass the promises of modern healthcare.

That is, on the one hand, technological innovation, with the potential eHealth and mHealth offer for patient empowerment and patient-centred healthcare. 

On the other hand, it is the increasing importance of data and information systems that are needed to steer health systems, but are often linked to concerns about data protection, calling for innovative solutions.

All these issues will form part of the discussions at the 18th European health forum Gastein, always taking into account the necessity of a coordinated effort by all stakeholders, which is indispensable for a healthy European Union.


Read the most recent articles written by Helmut Brand - Demography and diversity are new opportunities for Europe

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