WHO calls on private sector to finance costs of chronic diseases


A panel discusses how to share the burden of chronic diseases in Europe at the European Health Forum Gastein 2015. [Henriette Jacobsen]

This article is part of our special report European Health Forum Gastein 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / As the economic burden of chronic diseases continues to grow in Europe, the private sector – including pharmaceutical and insurance companies – needs to contribute more, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

Europe is the continent which is the most affected by non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases. At the moment, these account for 86% of deaths and 77% of the disease burden in Europe and make up large parts of the overall health expenditure.

But there has to be a balance in public and private contributions, according to the WHO, which is now calling on pharmaceutical companies to dig into their pockets.

These actions could include more public-private partnerships and funding of other types of programmes, said Bente Mikkelsen, the director for the department of Non-Communicable Diseases at the WHO. She was part of a panel discussion at the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) on Wednesday (30 September).

“This is about governments realising their own commitments when it comes to engaging the private sector and how they are actually going to finance non-communicable diseases as they have promised through previous political declarations,” Mikkelsen said.

“There is a clear view also in the global context that there is a need for the private sector to come forward with the financing through all kinds of fashions and mechanisms. The contribution from the private sector has to increase and should be more coherent,” she continued, admitting at the same time that the WHO is currently unaware of how big the contribution from the private sector is.

Ilir Begaj, the Minister of Health in Albania, said it can be difficult to measure the pharmaceutical industry’s contribution to a country’s health sector, saying only that it makes up a large part of his country’s health expenditure.

Still, more than half of the working-age population is not covered by the country’s insurance-based healthcare system twenty years after it was established, Begaj pointed out.

Begaj said he was currently negotiating medicine prices with the pharmaceutical industry, saying generic drugs had become more expensive in Albania than new innovative drugs.

This has caused many Albanians to travel to Greece and Italy to buy their medicines.

Public-private partnerships

Governments sometimes find it difficult to negotiate with multiple private sector firms, ranging from pharmaceutical groups to insurance and food companies, Mikkelsen said.

However it’s possible to place them in a “non-conflict of interest” situation, he added, saying there are ways to collaborate.

Morten Pedersen, from the Danish pharmaceutical group Novo Nordisk, emphasised the public-private partnership approach to tackling chronic diseases. Novo Nordisk has been part of such parnership through the World Diabetes Foundation, a non-profit organisation running projects on diabetes in the developing world. In thirteen years, the organisation has funded more than 300 diabetes-related projects worth €180 million, Pedersen said. 

In order for these partnerships to work, Pedersen said it was important to ensure full transparency – on the shareholders, the rules, the goals and the budget of the project.

But the audience at this EHFG panel took a more critical stance towards public-private parnterships. Several participants said they had lost trust in the pharmaceutical industry, which often supports patient organisations in order to win public funding.

Pedersen acknowledged that a general mistrust in the pharmaceutical industry is currently standing in the way of new initiatives and that companies should take measures to regain public trust.

Andrey Potapov, the general manager of Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Russia, pointed out that when it comes to contributions from the pharmaceutical companies to tackle chronic diseases, there could be other areas than financing.

“You can save a lot of money through early diagnostics and prevention. The most successful experiences, we have had, have been when we have a lot of projects on rasing awareness for the population to make sure that diseases do not develop or that we catch them at a much earlier stage. This costs much less money for the patient than buying the drugs,” Potapov said. 

The Gastein Health Forum meeting in Austria is Europe's largest gathering of health policymakers.

After having discussed how to set up sustainable EU health systems in times of crisis, and the EU elections in 2014, this year’s conference will focus on for example responses to threats that lie outside of the public health sector.

  • 30 Sept.-2 Oct.: European Health Forum in Bad Hofgastein, Austria.

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