This article is part of our special report Europe’s health after COVID-19.
The COVID-19 crisis has put the resilience and agility of European health systems to the test in an unprecedented way, and has reminded us about the crucial importance of health and wellbeing for our societies.
Nathalie Moll is the Director General of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).
As we continue to rally together in the fight against COVID-19, we also need to collectively reflect on what this crisis has taught us so far, about the state of European health systems and European health collaboration, and what could be done better or differently in the future. EFPIA believes that once we emerge from this crisis, we should not only rebuild our economies and get our societies back on their feet, but also take the opportunity to implement an ambitious reform agenda for European health systems. Going back to the status quo would not be an appropriate or realistic option.
Our health systems are complex and consist of many interrelated parts, and are also closely linked with other sectors such as social care, housing and the labour market. We need to have a holistic and system-wide discussion, and I would like to highlight a few elements that we believe are important to take into account.
The societal and economic value of health
COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the fundamental link between health and the wellbeing of our societies and economies. It shows that a lack of investment in health systems, while saving money in the short term, can have devastating effects on society and the economy in the long term. We should once and for all stop regarding health expenditure only as a cost, and absolutely avoid that health budgets are cut in the wake of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The road to resilient and sustainable health systems is not through short-term budget cuts but through improved care delivery and smart spending that will both improve outcomes and avoid unnecessary costs in the long run.
European solidarity and capacities
Diseases know no borders, and in a closely integrated Europe we must deal with health threats and other important health issues based on close collaboration and a common purpose. More solidarity is needed to support all Member States in strengthening their health systems and public health capacities in order to achieve common preparedness as well as equal access to healthcare and comparable outcomes for patients. The EU also needs reinforced capabilities to monitor and assess national and regional healthcare demands and capacities in order to better inform the supply of essential medicines and medical equipment, and other healthcare resources. Health inequalities need to be addressed also within Member States, including the specific needs of marginalised communities such as the homeless and migrants.
An integrated approach to funding healthcare
National health systems are still, to a large extent, fragmented in silos. They operate on annual budgets where the value and long-term benefits of health investments are not assessed or considered when evaluating health interventions. This crisis is an opportunity to design a new way of financing health systems based on an integrated budget, including both health and social care, which would also provide appropriate incentives to direct investments into prevention, services and technologies that bring benefits in the longer term and free up resources in other parts of the system.
Invest in a European health data infrastructure and digital health
The COVID-19 crisis has shown us the vital importance of having access to real-time and comparable data on how patients and populations are affected by disease, and on the effectiveness of different public health measures and treatments. Here we are facing a huge gap, when in some cases not even mortality data can be fully compared between countries. The EU should take the lead in driving the standardisation of health data quality, collection and interoperability, investing in national but interoperable Electronic Health Records and digital health infrastructures, and accelerate the creation of a European Health Data Space with a clear governance framework for the use of data in research. The EHDEN project, set up through the Innovative Medicines Initiative, is already proving how a federated approach can enable rapid analysis of large data sets in a GDPR-compliant way, and has recently started a collaboration with EMA to study the effect of treatments against COVID-19. Europe also needs the capacity to analyse health data for risk assessment, monitoring, projections and performance assessment building on health outcomes relevant for people and patients.
Health concerns everyone, and the COVID-19 crisis has shown an unprecedented engagement from the general public in seeking reliable information on the pandemic, and demonstrated the need for clear and reliable information on health issues from trustworthy sources. Long before COVID-19, patients have increasingly sought information, often online, to better inform themselves about their health and to manage diseases. In the future, more concerted efforts could be done to improve health literacy and combat misinformation, including through the latest digital tools.
Needs of people and patients in the centre
Last but not least we should put the commitments about people- or patient-centred healthcare fully into practice. All European health systems should have a plan for how to integrate a patient perspective in decision-making at all levels, developed in close collaboration with patients. This should include a strategy for the collection of data on outcomes important for people and patients for use in care, quality improvement and research as well as health system performance assessment and planning. The EU could play an important role in driving the alignment of how to measure patient-relevant outcomes across countries, as well as leveraging the data for benchmarking and cross-border comparisons.
EFPIA and its members are looking forward to coming together with partners, stakeholders and policymakers at both European and national level, including within the EU Health Coalition and other partnerships, to discuss how to improve the resilience, responsiveness and readiness of health systems. Let’s get started, there’s no time to waste.