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Organising and delivering healthcare is the responsibility of national governments. The EU role is to complement national policies by:

  • helping them achieve shared objectives
  • generating economies of scale, by pooling resources
  • helping member countries tackle common challenges - such as pandemics, chronic diseases or the impact of increased life expectancy on healthcare systems.

EU health policy - implemented though its Health Strategy - focuses on:

  • prevention - especially by promoting healthier lifestyles
  • equal chances of good health and quality healthcare for all (regardless of income, gender, ethnicity, etc.)
  • tackling serious cross-border health treats
  • keeping people healthy into old age
  • new technologies & practices

Health also has implications for economic prosperity - see the policy paper Investing in Health.

Specific EU action

  • EU-wide laws & standards for health products and services (e.g. medicines, medical devices and eHealth) and patients (e.g. safety and cross-border health services)
  • Giving EU countries tools to help them cooperate & identify best practice (e.g. health promotion activities, addressing risk factors, disease management and health systems)
  • Funding for innotive initatives trough the EU Health programme.

Baby eating vegetables © Van Parys Media

The EU promotes healthier eating.

Diseases - prevention

The EU supports activities to prevent diseases, such as:

  • promoting responsible food labelling - so consumers can tell what they are eating
  • tackling breast, cervical & colorectal cancer - by promoting screening programmes throughout the EU, providing quality assurance guidelines for treatment and pooling knowledge and resources.
  • unhealthy diet & lack of physical activity – encouraging governments, NGOs and industry to work together on these issues, and making it easier for consumers to change their lifestyle.
  • smoking - a comprehensive approach including legislation on tobacco products, advertising and sponsorship.

Diseases - response

The EU is helping its member governments be better prepared for serious cross-border health threats and better able to coordinate their response – for example by enabling joint purchasing of vaccines and other medical countermeasures.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control in Stockholm assesses emerging threats, enabling the EU to respond quickly. It pools and shares knowledge on current and emerging threats, and works with its national counterparts to develop Europe-wide disease surveillance.


Several different medicines in pill form - © EU

Public health policy ensures that medicines are monitored throughout their lifespan

Each EU country has strict testing requirements for medicines before they can be placed on the market. They then monitor the safety of those medicines throughout their lifespan – if a medicine turns out to be dangerous, quick action is taken, such as suspending or withdrawing the marketing permit.

The Commission, the national authorities, and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London all have a role to play in this system. The EMA helps national regulators by coordinating the scientific evaluation of the quality, safety and efficacy of medicines.

Research & innovation

The EU will spend almost €7.5bn on research to improve European healthcare between 2014 and 2020 – through its research programme, Horizon 2020.

Treatment abroad

The EU helps where it is easier or necessary to go abroad for treatment - for example where the nearest hospital is just across the border or where specialist treatment is only available abroad.

The rights of EU citizens to be treated in another EU country are clarified in an EU law on patients' rights in cross-border healthcare, which also:

  • makes it easier for national health authorities to cooperate and share information on quality and safety standards in healthcare
  • makes sure prescriptions can be recognised in other EU countries
  • prepares the way for European Reference Networks - specialised centres of expertise where health experts across Europe can share best practice.

The European health insurance card makes it easier for holidaymakers and business travellers to get treated if they get ill in another European country.

International cooperation

The EU works closely with strategic partners like the World Health Organisation to improve healthcare across the world through research, development aid, greater access to medicines, etc.


Public health

Manuscript updated in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series




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