A vision for a healthier European Union

healthier european union

Open Access Government explores the health priorities of Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, asking if lessons learned from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can help to improve European healthcare?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the foundational importance of our health and has exposed weaknesses in health systems all over the world. For example, in Europe, during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 84% of rare disease patients experienced some sort of disruption of their care. Going forward, it is evident that EU Health needs to be stronger than ever, and in this instance, can ensure that all rare disease patients in Europe have access to the right diagnosis and treatment they need.

This strategy is precisely the plan being adopted by the European Commission as we start to look beyond the COVID-19 crisis. The EU recognises the need to grasp this opportunity to strengthen its healthcare systems in terms of effectiveness, resilience, and accessibility.

The new EU4Health Programme is Europe’s most ambitious funding programme for health ever and will make an enormous contribution to the post-COVID-19 recovery by helping the European population to be healthier, strengthening the resilience of its health systems, and promoting innovation within the health sector. Furthermore, it will help fill the gaps revealed by the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that EU health systems are stronger if faced with new unprecedented health threats, as part of a future robust European Health Union. It is opening up a new chapter for EU health policy.

Starting with a focus on building a solid foundation of recovery and resilience, the programme will then work to build back better, by boosting and expanding work on urgent health priorities such as successful initiatives such as the European Reference Networks for rare diseases, the fight against cancer, reducing the number of antimicrobial-resistant infections and pursuing international cooperation on global health threats and challenges. The overarching aims of the project are:

  • Strengthening health systems to deal with cross- border health threats such as COVID-19 and improve crisis management capacity. This includes increasing surveillance of health threats, creating reserves of medical supplies, healthcare staff and experts that can be mobilised to respond to crises.
  • Making the European Health Union a reality by investing in cancer care, better pandemic preparedness, and affordability and availability of medicines and innovation, in particular for vulnerable groups.

Boosting digital health and disease prevention. The ongoing digital transformation of healthcare is a vital tool that must be utilised to improve accessibility.

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety commented on the impressive funding of the programme, stating that “with €5.1 billion, EU4Health will help strengthen our crisis preparedness and management of cross-border health threats as well as reinforcing the EU’s healthcare systems overall. EU4Health opens up a new chapter for EU health policy and sends a clear signal to people in Europe that public health is our priority and that we have listened to their concerns.”

Through the approval of the EU4Health Programme, it is clear to see that Europe is committed to improving its healthcare sector and meeting its ambitious goals.

Further funding for health priorities

On top of this, other EU programmes alongside EU4Health will provide additional investments in the health sector to complement the programme. These consist of:

• European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) to support vulnerable groups in accessing healthcare.

• European Regional and Development Fund to improve regional health infrastructure.

• Horizon Europe for health research.

• Union Civil Protection Mechanism/rescEU to create stockpiles for emergency medical supplies.

• Digital Europe and Connecting Europe Facility for creating the digital infrastructure needed for digital health tools.

A focus on patients

Commissioner Kyriakides made a keynote speech in March 2021 calling to place significant emphasis on having patients at the very centre when re-designing Europe’s healthcare provision. She firmly stated that while this has been a priority in the past, in European healthcare today, there is still a need for more integration, and more cooperation between patients, informal carers and health professionals. “What may seem to be a good result from a doctor’s perspective may not be the same for a patient. As we strive to build stronger health systems, the patient’s perspective is invaluable. It complements our knowledge and helps us to improve,” she highlighted.

Therefore, the EU’s Health Programme has funded initiatives that target this goal, and Europe is well on its way to building back a more sustainable and resilient healthcare system with patients at the heart.


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