COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the existing, underlying problems of healthcare systems. At the same time, it has highlighted the devastating impact that serious public health threats can have on both the health and wellbeing of our citizens as well as on our economies. The current crisis has clearly demonstrated how healthy populations and economic growth are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
Health now sits at the top of the European political agenda – and this momentum must not be lost. Therefore, we welcome the European Commission’s EU4Health programme proposal, with its €9.4 billion budget supported via the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Next Generation EU recovery instrument. Investments in public health and healthcare systems will ensure that a similar health crisis never impacts European countries so profoundly again, while playing a vital role in stimulating the economic recovery of Europe.
The first strand of the proposed programme will address health security and crisis preparedness. As the EU Health Coalition, we particularly welcome the second strand, which is aimed at supporting the longer-term vision of improving health outcomes through more efficient and inclusive health systems. The emphasis on strengthening the capabilities of the European Centre for Disease Control, on measuring standardised health outcomes throughout Europe, on the digital transformation of health systems, on expanding the European Reference Networks beyond rare diseases and on spreading best practices, amongst others is welcome. These are all priorities that we had identified in our 2018 joint recommendations for a shared vision for the future of health in Europe.
Collecting health data and sharing best practices is increasingly important, which is why we support establishing a fully scaled European Health Data Space. This way, we can achieve a ‘triple win’ for Europe: improving quality of care, building sustainable health systems and ensuring economic growth and job creation. With the digital transformation of health and care, health and digital literacy become prerequisites to build trust in, and ensure equitable access to, innovative technologies that may lead to better health outcomes.
We also need a long-term research ecosystem that helps support interdisciplinary networks, cross-border initiatives, health data infrastructures, robust collaboration, medical education and regulatory flexibility. In order to tackle our major health challenges, we need to develop a coordinated and strategic approach to plan health research, linked to the need of wider health policy.
We call on the European Commission to facilitate a permanent, multi-stakeholder forum for better access to health innovation. This should provide a space where all stakeholders – Member States, national and regional authorities, patients, civil society, healthcare professionals and industry – can come together to collaborate. It should provide a platform for discussion – together with policymakers – on the drivers and barriers to access health innovation, be they therapies, technologies, care pathways or healthcare services.
All of these could be facilitated through the EU4Health programme, allowing Europe to take the lead in areas such as research and innovation, health data and digital health, healthcare systems and health policies. It is time for the EU to play its important role in ensuring a healthy and equitable future for everyone.