Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) After multiple years of turbulence and disruption to our economies and our lives, we have learned the hard way that matters of public health cannot exist in a vacuum. As such, the pandemic has created momentum for EU health policy action — the like of which we have not seen before.
At a recent policy debate organized by All Policies for a Healthy Europe (Healthy Europe) — a cross-sectoral coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think-tanks, associations, and corporations working to empower citizen health and well-being as a policy priority — experts from civil society, industry and the European Union (EU) institutions gathered to discuss how we can make our European health systems more resilient.
The consensus was clear: while national and regional authorities will need to retain their critical role in healthcare delivery, the emergence of a European Health Union is becoming increasingly important and consequential for health and healthcare across member states.
In his opening address, Margaritis Schinas, European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, highlighted that “the European Health Union is not a slogan, it is an emerging, tangible reality.” This appetite has become clear among EU leadership as a ‘health in all policies approach becomes more pertinent by the day. As Philippe Roux from the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) noted, “Covid-19 has really shown that how well the economy will fare is really dependent on the health of the people.”
In sharing visions for a future European Health Union, Zeger Vercouteren, VP of Government Affairs EMEA at Johnson & Johnson, believes it should be based on three values. First, it should be a vision that strives for excellence in healthcare driven by innovation fostered in the EU. Second, the vision should be for an inclusive Health Union that promotes equity and seeks to narrow the gaps across Europe. Lastly, the European Health Union should be meaningful by providing tangible benefits to ordinary people and communities across member states.
If we conceptualize the European Health Union as a building – governance as the foundation and service delivery the roof, supported by the critical pillars of financing, healthcare professionals, medicine and technology, and data – Jan-Willem Scheijgrond, Vice-President and Global Head of Government and Public Affairs at Philips, believes the EU can contribute to the development of resilient healthcare systems. By strengthening the pillars, the EU can improve service delivery and impact.
While the European Health Union can strengthen the pillars, the provision of healthcare is an inherently local responsibility. When addressing issues of public healthcare, we must always start there and ensure that we deliver a response tailored to local contexts and circumstances, said Sara Cerdas, an MEP for the S&D group from Portugal. By referring to the EU Beating Cancer Plan, she highlighted the importance of addressing the particular needs of a given population, especially when it comes to equitable accessibility of care.
This point on local responsibility also emerged during the public consultations that took place as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In these discussions, it was demonstrated that there is indeed public demand for a greater focus on improving health and well-being for EU citizens — including mental health.
While improved citizen well-being has value in itself, better health also has positive economic impacts. We need to embed the ‘Economy of Wellbeing’ into how we measure economic growth, productivity, long-term fiscal sustainability, and societal stability in the Union.
The future of an Economy of Well-being should also be considered from a labor market perspective. Arco Elsman, Managing Director Europe of Randstad RiseSmart, noted that no policy can succeed without an adequate human-centric approach and a focus on well-being at the workplace. Healthy working life and ensuring happy and healthy employees is a win-win for employers who will see greater retention and employee satisfaction, for the health care system and the wider economy.
Overall, there is reason to be optimistic. In certain policy areas such as air pollution and cancer screening, more meaningful Economy of Wellbeing measurement has already demonstrated improved health outcomes and further informed our policymaking in all areas across the EU.
Despite this progress, there remains much still to be done. A key challenge is an inequity in the distribution of care. When it comes to accessing healthcare, inequalities, both between and within EU member states, are having an impact on health outcomes. There are huge differences across member states in access to new treatments and medical technologies, for instance.
In this sense, it is evident that the transformational power of the digitalization of our healthcare systems cannot be understated. As Mark Allinson of Vodafone Business pointed out, healthcare has many pathways that can be digitalized to improve lives. With a clear vision, and strong stakeholder collaboration across technologists, healthcare practitioners, and policymakers, we can create a truly digital healthcare system that helps to deploy digital health solutions at speed. One that makes sharing health data safe and secure and focuses on health outcomes.
The people of Europe want – and deserve – a European Health Union that delivers tangible results in the face of Europe’s health challenges. When it comes to matters of health and wellbeing, prevention is always better than the cure. Health in all policies approach, combined with a concerted effort toward digitalization and accessibility, will be critical to delivering what EU citizens are calling for.
European leaders, industry, and civil society alike are in alignment on these priorities, and cross-sectoral collaboration and a locally driven approach must remain at the core of our combined efforts to achieve them. We look forward to continuing these important discussions at the European Health Forum Gastein, Europe’s leading high-level health policy platform, in September later this year. We cannot have a resilient economy without resilient healthcare systems. Now is the opportunity to make health and wellbeing an EU priority.