For over a century, improved living conditions and advances in healthcare have greatly enhanced and extended the lives of citizens across Europe. However, this success story brings with it some challenges.
Longer lives coupled with an insufficient focus on health promotion have resulted in a surge in chronic diseases, which require long-term treatment and incur considerable healthcare costs. Every year the EU spends €700bn on treating chronic diseases – an amount which corresponds to between 70-80 per cent of all healthcare costs in the EU. Unless we embrace in-depth healthcare reforms, our healthcare systems may soon be unable to cope.
"Every year the EU spends €700bn on treating chronic diseases – an amount which corresponds to between 70-80 per cent of all healthcare costs in the EU"
At the world health summit held last October in Berlin, commission president José Manuel Barroso said, “Health systems are the cornerstones of Europe’s welfare. We must cherish their success and guarantee their future.” I believe that guaranteeing the future of our healthcare systems depends on investing in health now.
For most EU countries this does not necessarily mean spending more on health, but spending better. For certain countries, this calls for continued monitoring of the council’s country specific recommendations on health, under the European semester, and making use of EU structural funds for financing investments in the health sector.
For all EU countries, it calls for dialogue, cooperation and exchange of best practice, which the European commission fosters through various networks, partnerships, platforms and funding instruments.
The EU health technology assessment network is a very promising tool for deciding which health investments are the most worthwhile and cost-effective and which will render health systems more sustainable. By pooling scientific expertise, the network allows member states to draw on their counterparts’ knowledge and best practices, thus avoiding duplication of research efforts and unnecessary spending at national levels.
Focusing on health promotion and disease prevention can also be very cost effective. At present, three per cent of national health budgets, on average, is spent on prevention. There is a need for member states to adjust the focus of their healthcare systems, concentrating more on preventing or delaying chronic illness.
The European innovation partnership for active and healthy ageing and the EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health are examples of initiatives that get these messages across and put them into action.
When, despite the best efforts on health promotion, chronic diseases develop, the expanding field of eHealth – and its spin-offs: teleHealth and mHealth – looks like a promising solution. These technologies can enable patients with chronic diseases to be treated from home, or in community care close to where they live.
This not only results in cost savings by the healthcare system, but also empowers patients through greater autonomy and comfort.
In the EU, we also have a moral duty to ensure equal standards of care for sufferers of chronic diseases, no matter their gender, income or ethnicity. Accordingly, we must invest in reducing health inequalities, and ensure that Europe’s health systems are available for all. This investment will, in turn, strengthen social cohesion and help reduce poverty and social exclusion. The commission has a comprehensive strategy on tackling health inequalities and through the health programme, supports projects that aim to reduce such inequalities within and between member states.
Rising costs, new expensive treatments, an ageing population, along with budgetary pressure are not only challenges, they also present us with an opportunity to overhaul our systems, and hence preserve values which we hold dear: universality, solidarity, equity and access to good quality care. Health is Europe’s greatest asset. Together, let us promote it to the best of our abilities.