Europe staying true to values 'enshrined in EU health strategy'

Tonio Borg urges European health stakeholders to make their voices heard on the future of EU policy.

By Tonio Borg

29 Sep 2014

As the outgoing European health commissioner, I am pleased with the progress made in the EU in promoting health both as a value in itself and as a pre-condition for economic prosperity and social cohesion. I am pleased that the values enshrined in the EU health strategy, such as universality, access to good quality care, equity and solidarity continue to be widely shared across Europe, in spite of the economic crisis.

Over the past two decades, we have provided for the health needs of EU citizens through a wide-ranging set of laws, covering communicable diseases, tobacco and the safety of organs and blood. During my mandate, this set of laws was further consolidated by the recent revision of EU legislation on tobacco products, on clinical trials and on medicine safety.

"Europeans are living longer, and enjoying more healthy life years in general, but disparities in health between countries and between regions are well documented"

A rather unsung achievement, but equally important, is the commission’s role in helping member states – who are responsible for health – to cooperate and pool knowledge, expertise and resources to tackle common concerns. Working together with national authorities, we have developed joint strategies and action plans in many areas, such as tobacco control, obesity, harmful use of alcohol, rare diseases, cancer, diabetes, eHealth, health technology assessment and health inequalities. Our recent report on cancer, for example, shows how we have helped member states shape their national plans aimed at reducing cancer.

This being said, there is still a long way to go to establish a European Union for health; many challenges remain. Important inequalities in health persist. Europeans are living longer, and enjoying more healthy life years in general, but disparities in health between countries and between regions are well documented. For example, we put forward a report last month that shows the Roma population in Europe suffers disproportionately from illnesses associated with the social determinants of health.

Inequalities such as these are not the only challenge facing health policymakers in Europe. There is also the ageing population and the associated burden of chronic diseases. Here I believe Europe needs to further shift focus towards preventing diseases, mainstreaming such efforts across society. In addition, new, innovative drugs and technologies are being developed every week, which patients expect to benefit from. However, these are often extremely costly, and many EU countries have cut their healthcare budgets in recent years. We have to keep fostering innovation and safety in health to ensure high quality standards for health products and services, and to support European research that benefits patients.

Furthermore, in our increasingly globalised world, the possibility of cross border threats to health spreading into our continent is an ever present concern that we have to be prepared to address.

"As I pass the baton to the next health commissioner, I am confident that solutions to today’s healthcare and health systems-related challenges are well underway"

Finally, identifying more innovative and sustainable ways of managing our healthcare systems is a key concern. In this respect, the commission has helped EU countries to tackle this challenge through the European semester – the EU’s annual cycle of economic policy coordination. Each year, the commission analyses the EU’s national economic and structural reforms and provides recommendations for the year ahead. This year, 15 EU countries received tailored recommendations linked to health systems reform. The recommendations emphasised the need to ensure the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of health systems and called for concrete reforms to optimise the hospital sector, strengthen primary care and rationalise pharmaceutical spending.

Another important contribution is the commission’s communication on effective, accessible and resilient health systems adopted this April. This sets an agenda for further integration of health systems reforms within the wider context of the EU economic governance.

As I pass the baton to the next health commissioner, I am confident that solutions to today’s healthcare and health systems-related challenges are well underway. I would encourage my successor, as well as policymakers in member states, to maintain the momentum in making EU health systems fit for purpose and establishing a true European Union for health.

During the past few years, I have set out my vision for EU health policy, focusing on preventing diseases and promoting healthy choices, reducing health inequalities and abolishing discrimination in health, supporting innovation. Now, I would like to highlight an opportunity for others to have their voices heard. The commission’s Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth is currently under review and a public consultation is ongoing until the end of October. I invite health advocates from across Europe to participate in this consultation, and to highlight the importance of EU health policy for a better future for our citizens.

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