2013 European Health Forum Gastein: by Clive Needle - EuroHealthnet's Advocacy and Policy Director

22 October 2013

Once the only game in town when EU health policy was public and nascent rather than commercial and mushrooming, now the European Health Forum Gastein is well into its second decade and the dates for 2014 are already a calendar fixture. It was held in its usual early October slot in the small Austrian ski and spa resort which provides a glorious mountainous and glaciated backdrop. It is a joy to awake there on a bright morning with sun glistening off snowy peaks and lushly forested scenarios.

Inside the well-equipped conference rooms I sensed new faces amid the familiar this year as refreshed organisers sought to reach out to regulators and wider audiences. Many debates felt familiar and well tested; of course I am part of that established paradigm after many forum sessions. But there were emerging ideas, trends and technologies too. Everything is termed ‘’innovative’’ these days when in reality there is little truly new under any sun, mostly adapted, recycled or repackaged. But there is massive social change underway, and many people tried hard to enliven the jargon and nuances of the health sector. A film summary of chosen views, plus coverage of the on-the record meetings such as the big name plenary sessions can be found at the event site.

The main European Commission Forum organised by its Consumer & Health Directorate (DG SANCO) revolved around its Investment in Health approach, outlined and stressed by its redoubtable director Paola Testori-Coggi.  This forum featured wide ranging sessions on aspects of challenges and opportunities that modern health systems face. In the EU context this sits prominently within the overall EU 2020 economic strategy and in particular its social dimension, which is where EuroHealthNet has ploughed a lonely furrow taking a health for all policies approach in the context of the Platform against Poverty.

I chaired a session on public health elements which included a constructive overview of actions from Dr John Ryan, EC Director of Public Health, plus a thought provoking study of evidence of cost effective interventions by Dr Mark Pearson of OECD. This indeed provoked audience reactions in terms of how prioritisation should be judged and decided in varying timeframes as impact varies considerably yet may have differential values at intervals. The session concluded with a description of actions on immunosemesence within the framework of the EU Innovation Partnership on active ageing from Sanofi Pasteur MD research.

There will be many EU, WHO and other follow up conferences and meetings in months to come on these subjects as healthcare systems are subjected to affordability and efficiency stress tests. EuroHealthNet has published its own paper on sustainability and equity for health systems in 2012, which will be updated in 2014 within the context of its new Platform for Health & Social Equity (PHASE) and the EU Social Investment Package (see here).

After the SANCO Forum, the EC directorate for Research organised an excellent workshop on knowledge transfer including practical lessons from successful FP7 programme projects where users, policymakers and media had been well engaged. I spoke informally about the importance of integrity in evidence in the context of advocacy and the new Horizon 2020 programme and the potential outputs of the ongoing DRIVERS project.

Lastly, I spoke at a workshop organised by WHO Europe on the outcomes of the  Oslo conference on health systems in time so crisis in which I participated in April.

Other speakers in addition to WHO included the Minister for health for Lithuania and the EU directorate for Economic and Financial matters on the example of the economics of the Greek health systems and the EU Semester process. I highlighted the impact of economic and social circumstances on public health and inequalities and called for investments in health and social equity.

Several EuroHealthNet members including from Poland  and Netherlands participated actively at the Gastein forum in these and other sessions. My time there was limited, as it was sandwiched (or Strudel-ed!) between my visit and speech at the National Institute for Health for Portugal and the European Schools for Health Conference held in Denmark, which has been reported separately. It will be interesting to see how much of the discussion topics at Gastein have been implemented in reality when debates resume next year.