Chronic diseases threaten Europe’s competitiveness

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Elisabeth Bel

Elisabeth Bel is the President of the European Respiratory Society

In Europe, millions of people suffer daily from chronic respiratory diseases, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which keep them from leading active professional lives.

Prof. Elisabeth Bel is a practicing doctor and President of the European Respiratory Society (ERS).

COPD affects globally around 210 million people and it was estimated to have cost the global economy €280 billion in 2010. In the coming years, this number is expected to grow and will lead to rising healthcare costs, lost productivity and lower quality of life.

COPD places a huge burden on healthcare resources, but it is also associated with a range of indirect costs, including absenteeism from work, lost productivity and a reduced quality of life. If you have COPD, there’s a high likelihood you may have to retire earlier than your peers, due to deteriorating health. Annual lost productivity costs due to early retirement among individuals with COPD amount to €25.1 billion in the 28 countries of the EU. Furthermore, the consequences of COPD have a devastating impact on the individual, their families and on society.

In our challenging economic climate, it is critical to keep people of working age active and productive. Health has therefore the potential to serve as a key enabler of a productive European economy. To help keep people in work longer and reduce absenteeism, it is important to focus on quality healthcare.

According to the European Commission, between 70% and 80% of national healthcare budgets are currently spent on treating chronic diseases and, of this expenditure, nearly 97% of resources are spent on treatment, while only 3% is invested in prevention. Such an imbalance cannot continue. This evidence reinforces the need for policymakers and healthcare providers to prioritise awareness as well as prevention, proactive management and early diagnosis of chronic respiratory diseases like COPD.

At ERS, we believe that the European Union can and should help address these challenges through some concrete actions. Starting with the establishment of a European Framework for Chronic Diseases, as advocated by the European Chronic Disease Alliance (ECDA), of which the ERS is a founding member. Such a framework, would be the follow-up to the commitments made by the EU Member States in the UN Political declaration on the Prevention and Control of NCDs, adopted in September 2011, and the related European Parliament Resolution of September 2011.

Secondly, by expanding the resources dedicated to scientific research into the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of respiratory diseases. Research makes a direct contribution to their prevention and treatment and leads to dramatic increases in the quality of life of European citizens. Greater coordination between patients, specialists, scientists and other healthcare professionals in research also has a role to play.

Thirdly, by tackling existing social and health inequalities in Europe, which constitutes a major challenge, especially for respiratory health. Social inequality causes a higher proportion of deaths in respiratory disease than in any other disease. Reducing health inequalities could make an important contribution to the prevention of respiratory infections and there needs to be more concerted action in this area in the future.

Finally, by raising awareness and understanding of the need for regular lung function testing from an early age onwards. Early diagnosis leads to early treatment and early treatment is an important step to reducing healthcare costs in the EU. Spirometry as a tool for early detection should be implemented as a population-based quality-assured screening programme.

As a doctor, it is my duty to ensure my patients will get the best possible care. As the President of the European Respiratory Society (ERS), it is my mission to attract funding for scientific research and driving standards through the training of respiratory professionals. As Europeans, we need to raise awareness of lung diseases and direct resources to research into respiratory diseases, which compared to other major disease areas, has been underfunded for years.

For ERS, our most ambitious goal is to develop an independent research agency, which will focus the respiratory community on areas of respiratory disease that need more attention. This investment will help to develop a better understanding of respiratory diseases in order to produce better treatments in the future that will ultimately deliver better quality of life for patients. But we cannot go it alone.

As the new European Commission takes up its role, we look forward to working together to achieve these important goals. We need to ensure that respiratory diseases are high on the European research agenda and that more Horizon 2020 funds will be channelled to this disease area. 

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