‘Unnecessary’ surgery weighs on EU healthcare costs

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As eurozone governments scramble to adopt austerity measures, new research shows that doctors prescribe too many drugs and too much surgery for their patients, hampering much-needed investment in cost-cutting healthcare innovations.

New analysis of data revealed that four-fifths of back operations in Germany were unnecessary, said Günther Leiner, the organiser of the annual European health forum, which takes place next month in Gastein, Austria.

Speaking at a Brussels press club event ahead of the forum, Leiner also cited OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) data which showed a huge discrepancy between the number of hip operations per 100,000 people taking place in Germany (289), Austria (243) and Poland (39).

Surgeons operating just to make ends meet?

He said that such a discrepancy could not be explained by surgical considerations alone, and was evidence that an unnecessary number of operations was being carried out, probably because it made better financial sense to do so for doctors and hospitals.

Leiner cited other statistics gathered by Salzburg Medical University which claimed that 36% of prescription drugs handed to patients with an average age of 82 were unnecessary, and one third of all drugs handed out to these people were inappropriate prescriptions.

Around seven million people suffer globally each year from surgery-related complications, according to World Health Organisation data, Leiner said, adding that half of these operations were unnecessary in the first place.

Innovation required to cut healthcare costs

Leiner said that the Bad Gastein conference would discuss ways to deal with the problems of over-extended budgets and unnecessary surgery and drug prescriptions through innovation, personalised medicine and eHealth.

Paola Testori-Coggi, the Commission's director-general for health and consumer affairs, told the meeting that unnecessary or poor surgical outcomes were part of the general litany of problems affecting Europe's ageing population, and was the reason why the Commission had launched an innovation partnership on active and healthy ageing.

Testori-Coggi said that a great deal more funding for innovation in the health sector would be available under the EU's new 'Horizon 2020' research programme, which will take effect from 2014.

Meanwhile, MEP and former Slovenian Prime Minister Alojz Peterle called for greater European coordination within the healthcare sector and more social innovation to confront the issue of unnecessary surgery and active ageing.

Peterle said he would be giving a presentation at the Bad Gastein conference on the need for Europe to develop "social innovations" in health care rather than simply medical remedies.

He explained that such "social innovation" involved attempts to get society – and especially older people – to modify their behaviour in ways that increased their active lives. Examples include communities in South America, where the elderly are encouraged to visit each other regularly, he said.

Jeremy Fleming

Positions

"Unnecessary medical treatments are a Europe-wide issue which needs to be confronted head-on," according to Bad Gastein founder and president Günther Leiner.

"It borders on the absurd that a debate is raging everywhere in Europe on the limits of affordable health services yet there is a blatant and increasing over-treament in hospitals – due to economic reasons," Leiner said.

He concluded: "This trend leads to a number of problems, including a difficult ethical situation for many doctors."

"The risks posed by lifestyle diseases are well-known, and many are avoidable," said Austrian Socialist MEP Karin Kadenbach.

"That means we are not condemned to suffer from them. At present 97% of public health expenditure worldwide is on treatment, but just 3% on prevention. This makes no sense. With better prevention, millions of premature deaths could be avoided," she added.

Background

The EU's population is getting older and older. According to the European Commission, the working-age population will start to shrink from 2012, while the over-60s population will continue to increase by two million people each year.

The strongest pressure is expected to occur during the period 2015-35, when the baby-boomer generation reaches retirement age.

This presents challenges for the sustainability of public finances, in particular for the financing of health care and pensions.

The Commission has therefore created a European innovation partnership on active and healthy ageing to find breakthroughs that would allow older people to live healthier and independently for longer.

Timeline

  • 5-8 Oct. 2011: Bad Gastein conference to take place in Austria: 'Innovation and Well-being: Europe's health 2020 and beyond.'

Further Reading

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