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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health and Consumer Policy



Amsterdam, 12th November 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here with you today to address such an impressive gathering of professionals committed to improving health in Europe.

I would like to thank the Netherlands Public Health Federation, the European Public Health Association and the Association of Schools of Public Health for hosting this important conference.

Let me share with you today the vision of health in Europe which I strive for. I want to see:

  • A Europe that is able to deliver health services to all its citizens.

  • A Europe that places a greater focus on prevention of disease and promotion of good health; and

  • A Europe that makes optimum use of innovation at the service of the patient.

All the above contribute in an inextricable manner to the sustainability of the health systems and their delivery, across the European Union.

All of them are key drivers for reform – of the systems and their delivery and above all else of the mindsets and mentalities of patients, practitioners and policy makers.

Let me expand on each of these points in turn.

First, a Europe which is able to deliver health services to all its citizens.

Provision for health is at the very core of European welfare. It is a basic tenant of the societies in which we live – we cannot lower coverage or standards – indeed we can and must improve them.

In the times of economic difficulty that we are facing, it is often the poorest regions and the poorest citizens who are hit the hardest.

Health should not be dependant on how much you earn or where you live.

This is why I believe we need to intensify our efforts to ensure that all citizens have access to health services and to reduce health inequalities.

With this in mind, the Commission is working together with Member States and professionals – such as yourselves – to implement "Solidarity in health", as a means to reduce inequalities.

I am very pleased to see that inequalities is one of the key themes you have been debating here over the past couple of days; and look forward to your conclusions on this issue.

Reducing inequalities, however, does not depend on health policy alone.

If we want citizens to be healthy, we need first of all to ensure, for example, that everyone has living conditions which are adequate to maintain good health.

And this is why part of our "Solidarity in health" efforts relate to joining up forces with policies in all other areas that affect health.

Equally, attention has to be paid to tackling unhealthy lifestyles often related to smoking, alcohol abuse or poor nutrition.

This leads me to my second point. We need to place…..

A greater focus on prevention of disease and promotion of good health.

I believe in prevention.

By changing the way we eat and the way we move – or not, we could avoid up to 80% of coronary diseases in Europe, up to 90% of Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

I am particularly concerned with the fact that 1 in 4 children in Europe is overweight or obese; and this figure is rising.

I understand that you have held here in-depth discussions on obesity prevention, in particular in children.

I would be keen to learn from you how we can work together to tackle obesity-related health issues at local, regional, national and European level.

Tobacco is another great cause of concern. And the solution is clear.

By cutting on tobacco smoke, we could greatly reduce smoking related diseases that kill 650,000 Europeans a year.

I believe Europe needs to start investing in prevention now to see some results in the long-term - in 10, 20, 30 years time.

Our goal should thus not be limited to building hospitals. Our goal should be to build long-term policies that will help reduce the pressures on our hospitals.

We need to lay the foundations of a sustainable policy to prevent illness. For this to happen, we need to engage today.

Prevention does not take major investments.

Let me talk about tobacco control for example.

EU Governments have committed themselves last year to creating a "smoke-free Europe" by 2012.

And I am encouraged by the bold steps many governments are taking to reach this goal by turning "smoke-free commitments" into "smoke-free law".

Laws banning tobacco in public places may be very unpopular but they do not cost much money.

Increasing taxes on tobacco products may be even more difficult, but it does not cost money either, more to the contrary.

What I am trying to say is - we need to have the courage of our convictions. We need to invest much more time, much more effort and more money - when possible - in promoting good health and preventing diseases.

For my part, I am planning to propose a revision of the EU Tobacco Products law.

One of my ideas is to cover all the products out there in the market which are not regulated, such as eCigarettes, nicotine candies, nicotine drinks.

Another, is to ensure that citizens know what they are doing when they smoke; and to make tobacco products less appealing, in particular to young people.

This will certainly not make me popular.

But I believe our future generation and the millions of Europeans who suffer from tobacco related diseases deserve the effort.

So do the Health systems that must spend millions of euros providing healthcare for all these citizens.

I take this opportunity to invite you all to participate in the public consultation on the review of the Tobacco Products Directive – which is open until 17 December.

I want you to tell me - what you want Europe to do about tobacco.

This brings me to my third point….

I want to see a Europe that makes optimum use of innovation at the service of the patient.

We need to develop health innovation with patients and for patients.

We are all patients at some point in our lives. And I am no exception!

My family lives in Malta; I work in Brussels; and my job takes me everywhere.

If I fall ill in Europe, I do not want to repeat the same medical examinations I have already undertaken in my home country.

I want my medical data to be able to move with me. This requires electronic health records that are compatible and usable across borders; and which can be accessed by properly identified health professionals.

Essentially, we need to ensure that innovation in healthcare puts patients first and delivers good quality health services to all - right across Europe.

Of course, this will be difficult as we face the dual challenges of austerity measures while Europe's population progressively ages.

We therefore need to find ways to use our resources more efficiently.

One solution is eHealth, which has the potential to deliver better care, better access to healthcare and safer treatment

At the same time, it helps to cut costs while maintaining the efficiency and sustainability of health systems.

Let me give you the example of a citizen suffering from a rare disease in an island in the south or Europe.

The expertise needed to diagnose and treat his or her rare disease is most likely not available within national borders.

Would it not be good if telemedicine applications could enable this patient to access a specialised doctor – on the other side of Europe – without even moving from his or her home town?

This would mean access to care for the patient, and no costs related to travelling or getting treatment abroad.

This is not science fiction. The technology already exists and is waiting to be used.

So, what's stopping Europe from maximising the potential eHealth?

One major obstacle is the lack of inter-operability of health systems across Europe.

We need to ensure that eHealth applications can "speak" to each other – between hospital services in the same building; between different hospitals in the same town; and across local, national and European borders.

When I talk about investing in technology, I often get the reply "but we cannot really afford it".

True, technology costs money and needs to be used wisely.

This is where Health Technology Assessment comes into play as a tool to assess the comparative advantage of a new technology. This is an area where the European Commission is fostering co-operation and synergies between Member States.

The best "cure" is one that supports innovation, ensures an equitable use of innovation and one that attacks the core problems that make people ill in the first place.

I believe investment in technology will pay off in both short and long-term dividends.

Emerging health technologies can save lives, greatly improve healthcare and foster the efficiency of health systems.

The European Union is supporting and complementing the work of its Member States in this area. We provide financing through the Structural Funds to help improve healthcare infrastructure.

And the 7th Research Framework Programme devotes over 6 billion euros to health alone.

Our action does not stop here.

As demographics change, so do the needs of society. To explore innovative solutions for the future, the European Commission has just launched an Innovative Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing.

Our target is to increase the average number that our citizens live in good health by two years.

The Partnership will mobilise both the private and public sector and all levels of government to explore innovation in a way that responds to the needs, expectations and concerns of Europeans, as well as to the sustainability of health systems.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, we are witnessing incredible technological developments and medical breakthroughs.

These are exciting times. Our collective courage will help us to seize the opportunities and address the challenges in order to work towards a sustainable and equitable health system for our citizens.

I look to you, the public health community, to keep me informed, alert and engaged about new developments in public health.

Only by bringing together policymakers, researchers and practitioners in public health – in a fully integrated manner - can we adequately face the future challenges for public health in Europe.

Thank you.

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