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EU health policy seeks to give all people living in the EU access to high-quality healthcare. In particular, it aims to:

  • prevent illnesses and diseases
  • promote healthier lifestyles
  • protect people from health threats such as pandemics.

While the organisation and delivery of healthcare is the responsibility of EU countries, the EU adds value to their work by bringing countries together to address common challenges, in close cooperation with international partners such as the World Health Organisation.

EU action is based on its Health Strategy , which aims at:

  • fostering good health in an ageing Europe
  • protecting people from health threats
  • supporting dynamic health systems and new technologies.

The EU Health Programme complements and supports national action in:

  • protecting and promoting health – including reducing health inequalities
  • providing more information and knowledge on health
  • cooperating with stakeholders.

The Programme is managed by the Executive Agency for Health and Consumers, based in Luxembourg.

Baby eating vegetables © Van Parys Media

The EU promotes healthier eating.

Preventing diseases

The EU supports disease prevention activities, such as:

  • promoting responsible food labelling so consumers can tell what they are eating
  • making screening programmes for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers available throughout the EU, bringing together experts from all over the EU to share their knowledge, help avoid scattered actions and duplication of work, and make the best use of resources in this area
  • providing public information about the health problems associated with habits (smoking, diet, alcohol abuse) which can cause chronic diseases
  • increasing the coverage of appropriate vaccination schemes – e.g. seasonal flu vaccination.

Early warning and response

The EU and its member countries are working to build preparedness and response capacity (including early warning systems) to counter public health threats – as in the case of the H1N1 ('swine flu') pandemic of 2009.

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

Pharmaceuticals

Eye make-up © Pixelio

Public health policy ensures cosmetics are safe to use.

All new medicines have to be authorised before they can be placed on the EU market. Once authorised and in the shops, the safety of medicines is monitored throughout their lifespan. If a medicine turns out to be dangerous, the EU's system of pharmaco-vigilance helps to ensure that quick action is taken, such as suspending or withdrawing the marketing permit.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London coordinates the scientific evaluation of the quality, safety and efficacy of medicinal products.

Research and innovation

The EU will spend €6bn on health research between 2007-13. The emphasis is on:

  • translating basic discoveries into clinical applications
  • developing and validating new therapies
  • health promotion and prevention strategies
  • better diagnostic tools and medical technologies
  • sustainable and efficient healthcare systems.

Access to medical treatment everywhere in the EU

People generally prefer to receive healthcare close to where they live, but sometimes it is easier or necessary to go to another EU country, for example where the nearest healthcare facility is just across the border in another country, 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 will also:

  • make it easier for national health authorities to cooperate and exchange information on quality and safety standards in healthcare
  • make sure prescriptions can be recognised in other EU countries
  • prepare the way for "European Reference Networks" of specialised centres of expertise, so health experts across Europe can share best practices on healthcare.

The European health insurance card makes it easier for holidaymakers and business travellers to claim their right to healthcare if they fall ill in another EU or European country.

International cooperation

The EU Commission works closely with strategic partners like the World Health Organisation to pursue a global health policy with six main challenges:

  • equity
  • a coherent response to globalisation
  • access and innovation
  • health as a human right
  • governance
  • research.

Other key themes include:

  • solidarity – not just in development aid but also in policies relating to workforce and access to medicines
  • coherence between relevant internal and external EU policies.

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Public health

Published in February 2014

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


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