Balancing Europe’s priorities— 6 takeaways from Gastein

The annual pilgrimage to European Health Forum (EHFG) is now over, and while it is not easy to condense the action-packed agenda into a few paragraphs, here are our top 6 health policy takeaways:

1. Bringing innovation to patients

Covered extensively at EHFG were discussions around how to ensure all patients across the EU have access to new medicines and technologies that not only help better treat or cure people, but have the potential to change the way we look at major health challenges. In oncology for example, it is estimated that since 1975, 50-60% of the increase in cancer survival rates has been thanks to new therapies. However, in a climate of tight national budgets and rising healthcare costs, affordability of new treatments takes center stage, with a review of the value of medicines for patients and for health systems. These assessments rely heavily on evidence in health policies, which enable national governments to balance the need for each and every patient to access to quality care, while fostering sustainable pharmaceutical and technological innovation for future treatments. The OECD’s Francesca Colombo underlined at Gastein that health systems can further deliver improved outcomes by addressing health system inefficiencies, waste and reducing medical errors, thereby freeing up money that can be put where it is needed. As my colleague Jeremy said before on this blog, medicines constitute a small percentage of public health care spending, at just under a fifth of all public health care spending across Europe. Putting Europe’s health care systems on a sustainable path in light of the challenges of our time requires an improved focus on fostering policies which allow for the innovation ecosystem to thrive. 

2. Building bridges to combat chronic diseases

More than ever, faced with Europe’s high incidence of chronic diseases, we are seeing the benefits of collaboration in healthcare delivery. This is two-fold: first, collaboration across government agencies for smart, health conscious policies from agriculture to finance, research and education to trade.  Second, stakeholder collaboration in healthcare delivery for patients, through innovative partnerships and finding shared value. Throughout, as stated by World Health Organization director in the Department of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), we need to maintain transparency, clear lines of communication and adequate research and reporting. 

 3. Many diseases, a single strategy

Along the same vein, the treatment of chronic diseases is becoming an ever greater challenge for European health systems as the growing ageing population increasingly suffers from several chronic diseases at once. Comorbidities or multimorbidities, such as a patient living with diabetes and Alzheimer’s, or with arthritis, a respiratory problem and heart disease, absorb a considerable portion of healthcare budgets and place a great strain on patients. As stated by the European Commission, we need a change of mind-set from disease-oriented management to patient-oriented care, a strategy to be discussed at a Commission conference “Which priorities for a European policy on multimorbidity?' which will take place in Brussels later this month.

4. Evidence in health policies

It is difficult to manage what we cannot measure; as such, the pertinence of data to healthcare is undeniable. EHFG addressed the importance of data in terms of measuring health and health behaviours across Europe as well as health technology assessment (HTA). The first point means translating our capabilities for big data and data in real time into meaningful evidence for health researchers and policy makers. The latter entails measuring the impact of policies and interventions for health care systems, including the challenge of quantifying the value of innovation, and making a value assessment of what continuous innovation means for patients and society.

5. Patients as a resource for health systems

In light of constrained healthcare budgets and a growing number of people living with chronic diseases, better health literacy among patients and greater expertise and engagement of patients in design of their care is more important. Health literacy may not only be a means to better health outcomes, but a necessity for European health systems. This is the cornerstone of the European Patients’ Forum (EPF) patient empowerment campaign.  

6. Europe and health emergencies

Stated by Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis’ in the event’s closing session, “to "secure health in Europe" is to ensure that Member States and citizens have access to the medicines they need – in particular when a crisis strikes.” This was discussed in particular around the ongoing need for medical care throughout the refugee crisis and the continued supply of medicines in Greece. It is also applicable to the EU’s response to acute epidemics, in the face of new threats like the Ebola virus and MERS, but also, as mentioned by Youth Forum Gastein, looming threats such as the continued transmission of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in Europe. 

This year has yet again confirmed the European Health Forum as an important gathering of the best minds involved in European health policy.  It’s clear there is much to work on over the coming year; and there will be many other opportunities to share ideas and propose solutions until we all head up to the picturesque setting of the Forum in Bad Gastein in Austria again in 2016.