European experts meet to discuss impact of economic crisis on health

Copenhagen and Oslo, 16 April 2013

Senior government officials representing the 53 Member States in the WHO European Region will meet in Oslo, Norway on 17–18 April 2013 to review the impact of the economic crisis on health and health systems in the Region, discuss the various policy responses, share lessons learned and agree on ways in which countries can better prepare for the future.

The meeting will update the evidence presented at the Oslo Ministerial Meeting “Health in times of global economic crisis: the situation in the WHO European Region”, held exactly four years ago.

Ministers of health, representatives of multilateral organizations and technical experts will review the latest evidence, drawing on a study conducted by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies with WHO/Europe: “Health, health systems and economic crisis in Europe: impact and policy implications”. The results indicate that spending on public health has declined in many countries since 2008.

“In times of crisis, it is even more important that funding for health systems is protected, given that health needs can rise rapidly; ensuring access to health services is a central part of the broader social safety net,” said Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “That is WHO’s call to all governments in our Region: if you have to cut, cut wisely, not broadly, and protect the vulnerable to ensure universal health coverage. This is at the heart of the WHO European policy, Health 2020. Evidence shows that inappropriate cuts in the health sector can worsen the situation. At the same time, the health sector should do all it can to minimize wasteful spending, and ensure that the resources available are focused on services of proven value.”

“We must ensure that cost-cutting measures in the health sector do not increase social inequalities in health. Our ability to see and give priority to the weakest people in society must be our guiding principle in difficult economic times, as well as good. It is therefore encouraging that many countries are taking steps to protect vulnerable groups, so that they are less affected by the increased user fees that are being introduced,” said Mr Jonas Gahr Støre, Minister of Health and Care Services, Norway. “In the coming years, crisis or not, all European countries will have to make tough prioritization decisions to ensure the long-term sustainability of our health systems. It is therefore important for the Norwegian health authorities to contribute to this conference, to cast light on the effects – positive and negative – of the changes that have been introduced, which will in turn enable us to make better informed decisions in the future.”

Notwithstanding data limitations, evidence suggests that mental health is highly sensitive to economic downturn, which both increases the likelihood of falling ill and slows recovery. Across the European Union (EU), suicides in people aged under 65 years have increased since 2007, reversing the previous trend. Both unemployment and the fear of unemployment are major contributing factors. In addition, the incidence of infectious diseases (such as HIV infection) has increased sharply in some of the hardest-hit countries, where budget cuts have resulted in scaled-back preventive programmes (for example, for needle exchange) and early treatment services.

This demonstrates the importance of not only protecting but also strengthening preventive services, demand for which increases during economic crises. Similarly, protecting the poor and vulnerable in particular from the financial risks of accessing care, at times when their need to use services increases, is critical to avoid further impoverishment.

Further, falling household income affects unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking and harmful alcohol consumption, even though many countries report reductions in such behaviour overall.

The evidence suggests that, across the WHO European Region, governments have made great efforts to absorb budget cuts and protect access by lowering the cost of services, becoming more efficient in the process. Several health ministers from countries affected by the crisis will describe at the 2013 meeting how challenges can be turned into opportunities to improve access to and the quality of care while containing costs.

The meeting in Oslo will be webcast.

For further information and interview requests, contact:

Faith Kilford Vorting
Communications Officer
Tel.: +45 45 33 67 42