Time to take a long term view at Europe’s healthcare

The European Commission’s latest report on the Union’s State of Health, published at the end of 2023, makes sobering reading. With healthcare likely to be an important issue this year in national and European elections, politicians should take heed of some of the key findings, which highlight the need for urgent action on mental health, health inequalities and preventative health. However, as these are long-term issues, it remains to be seen whether many governments will make the investment required.

The first issue highlighted is mental health, which has been deteriorating since Covid-19. While the EU and nation states are taking forward a raft of initiatives to support people with mental health problems, many health systems simply don’t have the capacity to meet the levels of demand for support services.

Particularly challenging are some of the statistics showing high rates of depression among women and people from more deprived and lower educational backgrounds. Yet according to the Eurobarometer, some 7% of respondents described mental health services in their country as poor. Addressing these issues will take long term and increased investment and public health campaigns to address the continued stigma of mental health issues.

Secondly, the report flags growing health inequalities. This has been an issue that many significant health professionals have been warning about for some time. The European Commission highlights its work on its Beating Cancer Plan, and most member states have a cancer plan in place. Nevertheless, the issue of health inequalities goes much deeper and wider than that. Fundamentally, Europe has a major health divide between Eastern Europe and the West. The report also highlights the wider environmental, behavioural and societal issues that underpin health inequalities.

The final element the report highlights is preventative health. This is particularly welcome as it is the one area nearly all national governments are poor at. The benefits of social prescribing and access to physical activity services are well understood, yet we still seem lightyears away from recalibrating our healthcare systems to reduce demand and promote better healthcare for everyone.

With an ageing population and staff recruitment and retention issues in the healthcare system, few European leaders can afford to continue to ignore the need to address the levels of demand. As the report states, total healthcare spending amounted to some 11% of GDP in the EU and almost 16% of all public spending. Making sure we have a sustainable public health system that has the resilience to withstand future pandemics is therefore a priority.

Of course, digital health has an important role to play in helping overcome some of these challenges, including the use of telemedicine and AI. Nevertheless, without digital skills, many people will struggle to access the services they need and without interoperable systems, the benefits of digital healthcare may be slow to materialise.

Will our politicians have the wherewithal to look at these longer-term needs and make the changes required? Unfortunately, while the rhetoric of change is often heard, most governments are firmly focused on reducing waiting lists and addressing nearer-term challenges.

Now is the time for those organisations calling for preventative healthcare to make their voices heard both across national governments and within the EU institutions.

Ross Laird, Director, Healthcare