Commission must bring healthcare to the fore

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Horgan: "Europe should make no mistake about the correlation between wealth and health." [Fleep Tuque/Flickr]

Given that the current European Commission has not prioritised healthcare, it looks as though it is up to the European Parliament to push the agenda, writes Denis Horgan.

Denis Horgan is the executive director of the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM).

Not only that. MEPs should look to ensure that the next Commission puts a greater emphasis on health going forward, perhaps through its examination and scrutiny of the next president and his or her team.

Quite aside from the moral issue of ensuring that the basic EU tenet of the best healthcare for all citizens is achieved, it is clear that more emphasis in this area can have huge benefits for the economy.

Groundbreaking results in genomics and other sciences, and the subsequent emergence of personalised medicine means preventative and targeted methods in healthcare are now much more possible.

And it is clear that this kind of timely and efficacious treatment means patients are much less likely to require expensive hospital beds, people tend to work longer before retiring when they are healthier, citizens are more productive when healthy and are often prepared to work longer (legal) hours, and there are less sick days taken.

Europe should make no mistake about the correlation between wealth and health. Studies – at least one conducted on behalf of the EU executive itself – have repeatedly shown that the benefits of improved public health extend beyond simply reducing healthcare costs. The facts are that better health makes a positive contribution to the productivity of citizens.

Not only that, but incentives for research into innovative tools and medicines will mean that Europe will attract investment rather than lose out to other continents.

On the plus side, it is fair to say that despite the current Commission’s lack of prioritising healthcare, excellent progress has been made due to the foresight of previous administrations.

For example, previous Commissions worked hard in the area of smoking bans to protect the health of employees, and we had the working time directive (which governs the number of hours employers can have their staff working), progress on rare diseases (with the realisation that while there are small numbers with the same disease in each member state, taken together, the number can be large and is more than worthy of consideration in healthcare planning), and cross-border healthcare (which was supported by the European Parliament and backed by the European Court of Justice).

And let’s not forget the kick-starting of regulations on IVDs and clinical trials, among others. Let us also not forget that the majority of citizens across the current 28 Member States see health and healthcare as a top priority.

And in an EU that is seeing many, many citizens feeling disconnected from the concept of a larger Europe, voters staying away from the European election polling booths in droves, and endless complaints that the Union is detached from the average man or woman, it is, as mentioned, at the very least a surprise that the Juncker Commission seems to have sidelined health.

This is odd, as he said the following in a State of the Union speech: “No wind favours he who has no destined port – we need to know where we are headed. It is time to speak frankly about the big issues facing the European Union.”

Juncker went on to mention the “deeply political question, (of) whether you increase VAT on medicines in a country where 30% of the population is no longer covered by the public health system as a result of the crisis. Or, whether you cut military expenditure instead”.

The Commission president continued by saying: “What we need is to recreate a process of convergence, both between member states and within societies, with productivity, job creation and social fairness at its core.”

And he added that Europe is “reducing obstacles to activities cross-border and using the scale of our continent to stimulate innovation, connecting talents and offering a wider choice of products and services”.

Perhaps. But not enough.

One surefire way to achieve ‘more Europe’ in terms of the improved health of citizens is much better cross-border collaborations, especially in health than the levels that the president was referring to. Because while Europe continues to produce excellent science that provides an increasing insight into the role of biology and more in health and disease, our ability to translate these research discoveries into patient benefits are undermined by the structures and regulations currently in place at European and national levels.

A fragmentation of the research effort across Europe and the lack of a clearly defined road map for translation of research discoveries for clinical implementation are hampering the delivery of the personalised medicine agenda.

But that’s only part of it. The bottom line is that many healthcare professionals, patients, and other key stakeholders would have preferred that President Juncker had put more of a focus on health and personalised medicine when setting out his list of priorities for his term in office.

As discussed above, a healthy Europe means a wealthy Europe and the lack of prioritising health could be called a missed opportunity. What is clear is that the EU as a whole (and the parliament is crucial in this regard) needs to take urgent action in an area that matters fundamentally to all of us.

The next set of Commission priorities is key and must bring healthcare to the fore.