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21st Feb 2019

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EU calls for better disease prevention

  • On average, chronic diseases account for up to 80 percent of EU healthcare costs - but only 3 percent of EU countries' budget is spent on prevention (Photo: Pixabay)

Life expectancy has increased by six years in the EU since 1990, but European countries must make more effort in the prevention of diseases, the European Commission said on Thursday (23 November).

The EU executive, which was presenting the State of Health in the EU report, a two-year survey in all member states, stressed the need for more attention to chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular illness.

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On average, chronic diseases account for up to 80 percent of EU healthcare costs but only three percent of EU countries' budget is spent in prevention, figures show.

Deaths from these illness "translate into €115 billion in potential economic loss each year," says the survey, prepared in cooperation with the OECD, and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.

The Commission noted that prevention would provide an enormous return on health expenditure in saved treatments costs, better health outcomes and higher productivity.

It said that chronic diseases should be preventable, because they are largely dependent on behavioural risk factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, poor physical activity and unhealthy diets.

For instance, EU citizens collectively lose nearly 15 million life years because of dietary risks.

"The EU as a whole is not doing well when it comes to these risk factors," the report warned.

"The European Union has the highest alcohol and tobacco consumption in the world," EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis pointed out while presenting the survey.

Even if risk factors like smoking, drinking and obesity have declined in the EU in the last 15 years, the problem remains serious, with for example one adult man out of five and one adult women out of eight with heavy drinking problems.

"Prevention is better than the cure," said, Andriukaitis, himself a former doctor, adding that "we are far from prevention."

In order to promote prevention, the Commission provides support to member states in providing better consumer information on products' labels, changing ingredients to make food healthier and reducing marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

"There are a lot of measures that can be applied" besides labelling, Andriukaitis said. He gave the example of "the way alcohol is sold: hours can be restricted, there can be a ban on sales."

The EU has already introduced some such measures, for instance banning alcohol adverts online, the commissioner added.

The Commission can also support member states in exchanging good practices, as happened when the European Commission created a steering group to promote health and prevent and manage chronic diseases in 2016.

Socio-economic inequalities are indicated by the report as a further factor of risk, the Commission says, in terms of mental and physical health and a more general lack of prevention.

"Regular physical activity is less common amongst low-income groups in the vast majority of member states", the report states, while "smoking is prevalent amongst unemployed (46 percent)."

Also, gaps in education are relevant when it comes to illness prevention.

For instance, rates of overweight children in Spain and Greece "are very bad", due to gaps in education.

Education is a relevant factor also when it comes to disease screening tests, the Commission said.

Statistics report that for breast cancer screening programmes there are differences in take-up between high-educated (72.5 percent) and lower educated women (66.3 percent).

As part of the general assessment of the EU Health situation, the Commission addressed also stressed the importance of good primary care, to help patients through the health systems and avoid waste of money.

According to the report, 27 percent of visits in an emergency department are because of inadequate primary care.

Other key elements are a more integrated care system, an efficient, well trained, health medical workforce planning and better patient's health data, the Commission said.

Findings will be presented to EU heath ministers at their next meeting early December.

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