Danish health minister: Patient empowerment key to fight diabetes


Education and prevention will feature among the key tools to fight diabetes in the coming years, says Nick Hækkerup.

Nick Hækkerup is Denmark's minister for health. He spoke to EURACTIV's Henriette Jacobsen at the conference "Today, we can change tomorrow" on diabetes in Brussels.

Why have you chosen to be here today to put focus on the growing number of people with diabetes in the EU?

Because it's a serious challenge, not only for the population in Denmark, but for the population across Europe to be able to fight diabetes better than we have done up until now.

We see by counting the number of people who suffer from diabetes in Europe, that it is a severe problem due to our way of living and it's only going to become bigger in the years to come. We have to do something to treat diabetes, but we also have to do something to prevent ourselves from getting diabetes at the speed we are doing now.

What are the consequences if we don't do anything now – both economically but also socially?

The most important consequence will of course be that a lot of people throughout Europe will experience a lower quality of life than they would have if we didn't do anything. That's one aspect. Another aspect is that this is an area where we see a great social inequality. It's the people from the lower-ranking social groups who tend to represent the largest number. 

On top of that, and very important as well, this also has large economic consequences for a society in terms of money spent on treating diabetes and in terms of people suffering from diabetes who are not able to participate as part of the workforce, to participate in the society as a whole.

How high should diabetes stand on the EU health ministers' list of priorities compared to other life-threatening diseases?

it's a tough question because every time you look at the different life-threatening diseases, there's always a good argument while that particular disease should be top priority.

So I don't think that we'll have to choose. I think we will have to be able to, and I think we are able to focus on a number of diseases. But diabetes is one of the very important diseases that we have to fight in the years to come.

Do you understand that a country life Greece chooses to focus more on acute diseases such as cancer?

Yes, we should respect that. I think that this is an area where we can learn from each other across Europe, but this is not an area that calls for a common regulation in Europe. So I think that if another country decides to prioritise differently then we will respect that. One thing that we can do though would be to share our experiences and our best practise so even if you don't want to put this on top of the agenda, then we can still provide some tools that will make it easier to fight some of the common problems.

You mentioned patient empowerment in your keynote speech and talked about access to medicine and treatment. But I would like to ask about health literacy. Today, many people go online if they are feeling pain in search for a diagnosis and there's a lot of misinformation circulating. When it comes to patient empowerment how can we address this?

To a very large degree I think that one of the key tools in the coming years to fight diabetes is to empower the patient, to give the patient knowledge of the disease, to literally give the patient education in how to treat and handle the disease if you have gotten the disease. I think there is a lot to do when it comes to empowering people through enlightening them so that they can make the right decisions for themselves.

Today, we also learned that one-third of the people with diabetes have not yet received the diagnosis so they are unaware that they are ill. What can be done here?

That's a really hard question. if we could at an earlier stage make people aware of the fact that they might have diabetes, then the treatment would be even more efficient and the consequences fewer. There are some ways we can address this. The best one is of course through education and campaigns that explain diabetes, but it's also a job for the doctor to be aware of the signals of diabetes and recognise if he's dealing with a patient which would typically at some point be diagnosed with diabetes. This is an obligation for the patient, the health system, but also the pharmaceutical industry and so on.

The EU doesn't have many competences in the health area. It can recommend budget cuts but the member states don't have to follow the recommendations. So what can the EU actually do in order to put diabetes on the agenda?

The EU can do what you just said. If the other flip side of that question is, should we enhance the EU competences as far as making regulation…

… then we need a Treaty change?

Yes, but the point of view of the Danish government is that we are not in favour of Treaty changes at the moment as far as the health area is concerned. I think that the tools that the EU has at the moment are tools that could be used even better than they are at the moment.

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