COVID-19 has shown that innovation and collaboration are key to tackling major healthcare challenges, says Milena Angelova

Cancer will soon be the leading burden on EU healthcare systems; only by working together can we address this effectively, explains EESC co-rapporteur on Europe's Beating Cancer Plan

By Milena Angelova

Milena Angelova is co-rapporteur of the EESC opinion on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan

01 Oct 2021

With cancer set to become Europe’s leading disease burden, the case for concerted cooperation between countries and stakeholders at all levels has never been greater. This is why the European Commission’s initiative represents a milestone in the fight against cancer and is why we, as organised civil society, intend to play a pivotal role in supporting swift implementation of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

The last two decades have seen improved care for people affected by cancer. While more people are being diagnosed, the risk of dying prematurely has fallen, thanks to medical innovation.

According to 2019 data, the absolute number of cancer diagnoses has risen by around 50 percent in Europe over the past 20 years, while the number of deaths increased by only 20 percent. However, we can and must do more, and the swift implementation of the Beating Cancer Plan will put us on track.

“The last two decades have seen improved care for people affected by cancer. While more people are being diagnosed, the risk of dying prematurely has fallen, thanks to medical innovation”

While the cancer prevention is of the utmost significance, it is equally important that the EU and Member States ensure the availability of high-quality, accessible healthcare infrastructure.

This should include screening, diagnostics and treatment facilities and health services as well as effective support systems for patients’ physical and mental well-being during and after treatments.

As an urgent measure, we must tackle the problems caused to access to health services by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions and delays reduce the chances of recovery and must be effectively addressed, and an urgent response is needed to address people’s fears.

The social partners and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in disseminating best practices and providing relevant information; what can cause cancer, helping people recognise early symptoms, promoting prevention and inspiring healthy lifestyles. Their efforts should be supported, including through funding joint actions under ESF+ for combating cancer and disseminating best practices on health prevention. 

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), in its Opinion adopted in June, endorsed the initiatives of screening and cancer prevention projects. It encourages the use of new technologies and efforts to raise awareness of the need for preventive screening to enhance the early detection of cancer. These screening and educational initiatives should target all common types of cancer and be available to the largest possible number of people. 

To reduce national, regional and social inequalities in beating cancer and provide high-standard solutions for all, it is crucial for the EU to involve all Member States in implementing the plan and encouraging cooperation among them, including through EU funding. The plan’s implementation needs to respond to the specific and particular needs of patients and survivors and to adapt to the different national circumstances.

“With strong partnerships and collaborations, we can deliver more for cancer patients, more for citizens, and more for Europe”

These include people’s socioeconomic environment, age, gender, disability, etc. We also called for improved opportunities for cancer patients to benefit from high-quality treatment, care and expertise provided by other Member States.

To strengthen joint efforts, the EESC advocates ensuring and enhancing a well-functioning single market for cancer-related goods, services and labour. It also requires the effective application of the principles on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare. 

We underlined how research and innovation remain a cornerstone for better understanding cancer risk factors and improving diagnoses, therapies and treatments.

Innovation ecosystems, involving different-sized enterprises, researchers, patients, health professionals and authorities, need to be encouraged and supported by EU and national funding, particularly through partnerships under Horizon Europe.

The EESC has also emphasised the need for major efforts to be focused on generating and making available and accessible data to help aid more advanced prevention, diagnosis and treatment methods. To enable personalised prevention and care, digital health data should be linked with the genomic data of bio banks. The development and use of data analytics methods, including AI, also needs to be enhanced through strengthened EU cooperation. 

Beating cancer requires international cooperation and high-quality education in cancer-related disciplines. These include cooperation between EU countries in education and skills promotion programmes, supported by the EU and implemented by joint actions of the social partners.

Cooperation is also particularly important in research and innovation and in facilitating knowledge sharing. Moreover, open and structured collaboration is needed to ensure the availability of medicines, equipment and other goods for cancer treatments. 

Industry plays a central role in developing solutions for cancer prevention, screening, diagnostics and treatment. Manufacturers are also striving to defeat cancer by reducing their environmental impact, developing and producing safe products, improving health and safety in workplaces and supporting patients in combining work and cancer treatment and returning smoothly to work. To encourage this, the EU needs to provide favourable conditions for innovation and investment for business.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that innovation and collaboration are key in beating any healthcare challenge. With strong partnerships and collaborations, we can deliver more for cancer patients, more for citizens, and more for Europe. 

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