Health officials flag demographics, sustainability concerns

Health officials flag demographics, sustainability concerns

At the conference on the future of the EU Health Union (27 March), Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke asked officials what challenges were unmanageable and kept them awake at night.

The current changing demographic and increasing labour shortages pose a huge challenge to health systems, said Pia Dijkstra, minister of medical care from the Netherlands.

“Our populations are increasingly getting older, and an ageing society is accompanied by an increasing and more complex demand for care,” she said.

Data from Eurostat shows that the median age in the EU is projected to increase by four and a half years before 2050, to reach 48.2 years. It is also projected that, by 2050, there will be close to half a million centenarians in the bloc.

The sustainability of the healthcare system is a common concern across the European Union which, according to health ministers requires a coordinated solution.

Jakub Dvořáček, deputy minister of health in the Czech Republic, explained that while health is a member state competence what needs to be done at the EU level is to harmonize the approach, to make sure not to “damage the national steps.”

“How to make the financing of our health system sustainable in the medium to long term is a real challenge where I would see some room for improvement in the sense of European coordination and cooperation,” said Thomas Steffen, state secretary at the German ministry of health.

Along with the demographic changes, EU health ministers mentioned other risk factors threatening the long-term sustainability of the health environment.

Denis Kordež, state secretary at the health ministry in Slovenia, said that the Balkan state is currently experiencing its longest doctors' strike, which he described as an “inglorious record”.

“So, what keeps me at night is how to ensure good working conditions and adequate pay with and to incentivise our healthcare workforce to retain in the public health system,” he added.

All of the panellists agreed that together with the current challenges, the EU cannot look away from possible future crises and needs to focus on preparedness and on ensuring European autonomy.

“We’ve found out that we are living in multiple crisis times, and health is always on the agenda,” said Steffen.

Some of the crises that were mentioned include climate change, possible future military conflicts and increasing geopolitical instability.

“That is why we need a cross-sectoral approach. [...] It's about industrial structures and strategies. It's about trade. It's about third countries. It's about geopolitical strategies of the European Union", added the German official.