Health in an age of austerity: WHO at European Health Forum Gastein
Speaking during the opening session of the 15th European Health Forum Gastein in Bad Hofgastein, Austria last week, Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, underlined the vital economic role of the health sector. She said that investing in public health, health promotion and disease prevention in times of austerity was essential to limit the increasing costs to health systems of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, alcohol-related harm, obesity and road-traffic injuries.
Treating NCDs accounts for a large portion of health system spending: in the European Union, treating cardiovascular diseases costs €169 billion annually, accounting for 62% of health-care costs. Using fiscal policies, such as increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, helps to reduce the burden of NCDs. More broadly, tackling the root causes of ill health, avoiding across-the-board budget cuts, improving public expenditure on the poor and vulnerable, and rationalizing the use of medicines and technologies, as well as service delivery, help countries maintain health while navigating through the economic crisis.
During the opening session, Ms Jakab introduced and officially launched Health 2020: the European policy for health and well-being. This new policy framework provides coherence across policies and programmes to support countries in responding to the current challenges and opportunities to improve health and well-being.
In addition, WHO arranged a parallel meeting on planning and implementing NCD programmes in eastern Europe and central Asia:
- to review global and regional developments in prevention and control and to map out a “tool set” of relevant NCD and health-system interventions;
- to seek feedback on the possibility of establishing regionally coordinated action for NCD prevention and control; and
- to set out a plan of technical support and collaboration for individual countries.
Ms Jakab also addressed participants at the European Health Forum in Gastein on the subject of global health governance. As more and varied groups now have an interest in health, WHO has continuing relevance and even greater importance, and Health 2020 supports action across government and society to promote health and well-being. She explained that the work of different stakeholders must be better coordinated and optimized, through building networks and interacting with civil society from the local to the supranational levels. As an example, she cited WHO/Europe’s strengthened cooperation with the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Many sessions of the Forum addressed the issue of health-system governance. WHO/Europe organized a workshop on how governance helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of health care systems, and how further integrating systems and coordinating care improves efficiency.
WHO/Europe also participated in a workshop on the effects of the financial crisis on health systems in the Russian Federation and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, organized by the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as parallel fora on health systems’ sustainability organized by OECD, and the public health challenges of 2050, organized by the European Commission Directorate-General for Research.
Climate change, an example of governance in a multilateral environment
WHO/Europe took part in a panel discussion on governance, focusing on experience with including health in a multilateral agreement, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The European environment and health process has been instrumental in highlighting health in international climate-change negotiations. Important successes included the systematic provision of evidence for policy-making, the involvement of country leaders in practical approaches, and the engagement of social media, young professionals and interest groups.
WHO/Europe also participated in a panel discussion on the influence of social media on health behaviour. Participants recognized that social media offer an opportunity to establish dialogue on issues such as immunization, but that more needs to be done to profile susceptible groups in order to address them in the most appropriate way.