Coming soon: RHN annual meeting, 14 – 15 October 2015. An interview with Dr Piroska Ostlin.

As the 2015 Regions for Health Network (RHN) annual meeting approaches, we interviewed Dr Piroska Ostlin, Acting Director, Division of Policy and Governance for Health and Well-being, WHO/Europe  She shared with us her comments on RHN's role and on the upcoming annual meeting, happening in October as a pre-conference event to the European Public Health Conference in Milan, Italy. 

What potential do you see in RHN?

RHN is, by all means, one of the very dynamic "engines" we rely on at WHO/Europe for strengthening public health at regional level. As you well know,  the WHO European Region includes 53 countries: a huge entity. That is why we turn to networks like RHN to make sure we are always up to date at subnational level. RHN complements work carried out at national level by working with subnational actors. We count on regions and crucial platforms like RHN as important actors in the implementation of Health 2020, the European policy framework for health and well-being.

Regions are also fundamental players in terms of best practices and, as such, are excellent knowledge generators. If you look at the publications we have coordinated recently, you will realize that they cover exactly this: success stories about whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches to health and well-being. I am thinking about the Bibione (Italy) case study, for instance, where multisectoral collaboration is presented as a key element in the fight against tobacco, or the Västra Götaland (Sweden) report where participatory factors made all the difference, leading to outstanding results. Also, I feel the debate within RHN is at the forefront of public health's evolving scenarios. For example, tackling health inequalities, which is one of the strategic objectives of Health 2020, is considered by RHN members as an absolute key priority.

How do you assess the role of regions in the implementation of Health 2020? And, as you were mentioning best practices, could you provide us with some examples?

In many ways, regions are leaders of change, and regions can speak to citizens and listen to them in a more engaging and direct way. The RHN Göteborg Manifesto –a recent milestone in the long story of RHN – rightly states that "regions act as bridges between national ambitions and local delivery", and that regions are close enough to their citizens to hear what they say and see what they need, with specific attention paid to the poor and vulnerable.

Regions can motivate people while implementing consistent, crucial policies. Regions must respond to risks and changes in a prompt way. The famous saying "act local, think global" is basically part of their DNA. In this sense, Health 2020 is a global tool of excellence to improve health and well-being for all, and many regions have taken up the challenge, sometimes well ahead of the national level, to keep this framework as their guide. Many countries have based their national health plans on Health 2020. The regional level of implementation of these has a key added value, namely the strong emphasis on participation of citizens and other local actors. This way, people are part of the process that leads to decisions about innovative policies that affect their everyday life. They "own" this process and they understand its full meaning.

There are outstanding examples of this within RHN. I am thinking of Skåne – a region in Sweden – that documented the process of involving citizens and all stakeholders in a constructive dialogue. In its role as knowledge hub, RHN is making available the acquired know-how, based on the Skåne experience, through a publication on participatory approaches that will be launched during the RHN Milan event. This event will also include the experiences of other champions, like the Autonomous Community of Andalusia (Spain), Wales (United Kingdom) and the Autonomous Province of Trento (Italy), in using participatory approaches in public health policy-making and implementation. In Trento, for instance, first there was a thorough technical consultation aimed at drafting a plan with health objectives and strategies for the period 2015–2025, and then people were asked to provide feedback on the draft plan. Both cases in my view are fine examples of best practices: two inspiring champions that kept Health 2020 as a reference to improve the health of their citizens.

Can you tell us a little bit about your impressions on the upcoming 2015 RHN annual meeting in Milan, Italy?

The 2015 RHN annual meeting will take place in a very special context – the European Public Health Conference. And the very same Conference is happening in an even more special scene, that is to say, EXPO 2015, an international event that has placed Milan on the global map with a very crucial theme: nutrition, food and the right to food. I am very excited that RHN is participating in such a vibrant initiative, and I am confident that all participating regions will enjoy the event and find it incredibly engaging. The content we have in our programme is very close to the heart of all regions in Europe and encompasses all core themes of Health 2020. I believe that many will provide input to the discussions The format of this year's event will enable participants to compare notes, learn and share. I am looking forward to the annual meeting, and am very curious to learn more about each participating region's ideas and inspiring stories. See you in Milan!