It is up to national governments to organise healthcare and ensure that it is provided. The EU's role is to complement national policies by:
- helping EU governments achieve shared objectives
- generating economies of scale by pooling resources
- helping EU countries tackle shared challenges - pandemics, chronic diseases or the impact of increased life expectancy on healthcare systems.
EU health policy, implemented though the Health Strategy(123 kB) , focuses on:
prevention - especially by promoting healthier lifestyles
equal chances of good health & quality healthcare for all (regardless of income, gender, ethnicity, etc.)
- tackling serious health threats involving more than one EU country
- keeping people healthy into old age
- supporting dynamic health systems & new technologies
Health also affects economic prosperity - see the policy paper Investing in Health.(3 MB)
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 health services involving more than one EU country)
- Giving EU countries tools to help them cooperate & identify best practice (e.g. health promotion activities, tackling risk factors, disease management & health systems)
Funding health projects through the EU health programme.
Diseases - prevention
The EU backs preventive action against diseases, e.g.:
- responsible food labelling - so consumers know what they're eating
- action against breast, cervical & colorectal cancer – EU-wide screening programmes, providing quality assurance guidelines for treatment, pooling knowledge & resources
- measures to promote a healthy diet & exercise – encouraging governments, NGOs & industry to work together, making it easier for consumers to change their lifestyles.
- combating smoking through legislation on tobacco products, raising awareness, advertising & sponsorship.
Diseases - response
The EU helps national governments to prepare more effectively for serious health threats affecting more than one country and to coordinate their response better – by enabling vaccines and other medical inputs to be purchased jointly, for example.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control in Stockholm assesses emerging threats so the EU can respond rapidly. It pools knowledge on current and emerging threats, and works with national counterparts to develop disease monitoring across Europe.
All medicines in the EU must be approved at national or EU level before being placed on the market. The safety of a drug sold in the EU is monitored throughout its life. If it is dangerous, swift action is taken; sales are suspended, or the marketing permit is withdrawn.
The European Commission, the national authorities, and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London all play a part in this system. The EMA helps national regulators by coordinating the scientific assessment of medicines' quality, safety and efficacy.
Research & innovation
Through Horizon 2020, its research programme, the EU is set to spend almost €7.5 bn on research to improve European healthcare between 2014 and 2020.
The EU helps where it is necessary – or easier - to go abroad for treatment: if the nearest hospital is just across the border, for example, or if specialist treatment is only available abroad.
EU citizens' rights to treatment in another EU country are set out in an EU law on patients' rights in healthcare involving more than one EU country (cross-border healthcare), which also:
- makes it easier for national health authorities to cooperate & share information on quality & safety standards in healthcare
- guarantees recognition of prescriptions in other EU countries
- paves the way for European Reference Networks - specialised centres of expertise where health experts from across Europe can share best practice.
The European health insurance card (EHIC) helps travellers obtain treatment if they fall ill abroad.
The EU works closely with strategic partners, such as the World Health Organisation, to improve healthcare worldwide through research, development aid, greater access to medicines, and so on.
Manuscript updated in November 2014
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series
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