Thursday

18th Jul 2019

Opinion

Europe needs incentives to combat chronic disease

  • Chronic diseases are exacerbated by behaviour - smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and poor diet (Photo: Steve Baker)

This was a tumultuous year for the European Union, marked by continued economic malaise and the United Kingdom's historic decision to launch the process to leave.

Some are questioning whether the EU can survive the loss of its second-largest economy. Looking ahead to 2018, the inevitable belt-tightening will put public health budgets on the chopping block even as Europe faces a growing double-burden of aging and chronic disease.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

As our leaders aim to get the EU back on track, they should remember that healthy populations are the basis for strong economic growth. Short-sighted policies that neglect public health and stifle future medical innovation will only deepen current problems.

The European Commission sounded fresh alarm on chronic diseases in The State of Health in the EU, published in conjunction with the OECD, the Paris-based club of wealthy nations, in October.

This biannual survey of European countries found that chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes, hypertension and others – comprise up to 80 percent of EU healthcare costs on average. The related deaths among working-age adults cost the continent €115 billion in lost productivity each year.

Because chronic diseases are exacerbated by behaviour - smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and poor diet - an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

More aggressive investment in deterring these behaviors would reduce treatment costs and boost economic productivity to the tune of billions of euros each year.

Yet, while politicians pay lip service to these grave concerns, EU member states spend on average only three percent of health budgets on prevention. Some measures have been adopted, such as the banning of online advertisements for alcohol.

Missing, however, are reasonable education programs to promote physical health and nutrition. Such measures require both political will and funding to properly implement them - both of which are in short supply in the current environment.

Equally important is avoiding short-sighted policies that seek quick fixes where none are needed. Chief among these is a persistent attack on protections and incentives for the discovery of new medicines.

The European Commission is only the latest institution to approach health care from this perspective. Based on the council conclusions of June 2016, the commission has been preparing an economic analysis of the impact of incentives on access to medicines, with the aim of proposing legislation in 2018.

The logic goes that by weakening incentives extended to biopharmaceutical companies for the discovery of new medicines to treat, for example, pediatric and rare diseases, governments might save a few dollars or somehow increase access to these medicines.

My many years as a practicing doctor and public official - including a term as Austria's health minister - have shown me that this is a sorely misguided effort.

Specific incentives for the research and development of pediatric treatments have spurred the discovery of 1,800 new medicines, providing families with more options in caring for children with debilitating conditions like juvenile arthritis.

Furthermore, establishing incentives for rare disease treatments in 2000 has led to a 16-fold increased in new medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Diminishing these incentives won't put more treatments into the hands of people who need them most. But it will make it harder to produce these numbers going forward. With more than 7,000 new treatments in development - including hundreds targeting chronic diseases - this a big risk to take.

The EC review threatens to undermine such incentives at a time when we need more medical innovation - not less - to turn the tide against chronic diseases.

While I've personally felt the frustration of struggling to contain rising health care costs, the role of these incentives is part of a century of medical innovation that has yielded unprecedented gains in quality of life.

Look at what has been accomplished in just the past few decades.

European life expectancy has risen by six years since the 1990s. HIV has become a treatable illness. Hepatitis C is curable in 90 percent of cases. And more half of patients diagnosed with cancer live another five years.

These advances are unambiguously the product of incentives for medical innovation.

Any effort to undermine them will only deter inventors and investors at a time when the science of innovation is becoming riskier and more expensive.

While the specter of chronic diseases is daunting, there is a clear path to victory. European member states must invest more in prevention and avoid policies that deter vital investments in future treatments and cures.

I hope that when Austria assumes the oresidency of European Commission in July, it will keep a clear focus on public health and embrace these positions with vigor.

The future of the European Union may well depend on it.

Andrea Kdolsky was Austria's minister of health and family affairs from 2007 to 2008.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Interview

Health inequalities are economic issue, says commissioner

Social and geographical inequalities in Europeans' health are one of the main challenges for the EU, says health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis. He calls on finance ministers to look at the consequences for their country's economies and competitiveness.

Focus

EU calls for better disease prevention

EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis is encouraging states to spend more to prevent diseases that weigh much on health systems.

Weber: Six proposals in wake of Spitzenkandidat process

I will not lament the decision-making process that resulted in a package deal on the new leadership in Europe. I respect this result, which was in accordance with the treaties and therefore not undemocratic, albeit unsatisfactory.

Time to pay attention to Belarus

Belarus may be hosting the European Games, but Vladimir Putin is not playing games when it comes to Belarus' independence. The West needs to get serious as well.

News in Brief

  1. Nata chief warns world against more Russian missiles
  2. Germany closes Amazon probe as EU opens another
  3. Report: US chipmaker Qualcomm set for new EU fine
  4. Ireland fears Brexit time zone split
  5. Selmayr to leave EU commission post
  6. EU 'appeasement' of Iran like that of Nazis, Israel says
  7. Report: EU anti-trust chief to go after Amazon
  8. Report: France to back Kovesi for EU prosecutor

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Timmermans trolls Brexit 'idiot' negotiators
  2. Rudderless Europe: Will real Germany please stand up?
  3. PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory
  4. Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts
  5. EU proposes yearly rule of law 'reports'
  6. Poland 'optimistic' despite new EU law checks
  7. What did we learn from the von der Leyen vote?
  8. Is Golden Dawn's MEP head of a criminal organisation?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us