Tackling the inequality in health: a prerequisite for a sustainable Social Europe 2030

23 September 2010

Erio Ziglio, Head of the Europe Office for investment for health and development, World Health Organisation, said the widening differences in health within the EU were socially, not genetically produced, and should be remedied. Recent data shows that health and social problems are worse in countries where there is a highly unequal distribution of wealth, for example: the US.

Policy-makers need to draw up comprehensive coordinated strategies, but these will only succeed if they are backed up by political commitment, a willingness to change the system and financial backing.

Some countries have been successful, such as Slovenia, Norway and Scotland, using measures such as local development or inter-sectoral strategies or a ‘whole of government priority approach’.

There are funding opportunities within the EU, such as applying for Structural Funding, but taking action is like climbing a high mountain, one must be well-equipped for the uphill struggle.

Charles Price, Policy Officer for Social Determinants and Health Inequalities, Director-General for Health and Consumers, European Commission, focused on the EU responsibility for reducing health inequalities, welcoming that the Europe 2020 Communication had mentioned the need to address health inequalities.

He highlighted the perilous state of health in European countries and regions, where male life-expectancy is lower than in Sri Lanka, and infant mortality worse than in many developing countries, and said health inequalities are caused by different living and working conditions, health-related behaviours, and failing health-care and other systems.

The EU shares a responsibility in health issues with EU Member States, in the context of  Well-being, and through the Europe 2020 Strategy which incorporates health and social aspects. However the EU must only be involved if it contributes added-value, such as helping Member States share information and good practice, and encouraging transnational, and inter-regional measures.

Clive Needle, Director, EuroHealthNet, said one needs to a holistic approach to understanding the causes of social and health inequalities. EU data shows a consistent social gradient in health from the most deprived to the most advantaged and that there is a direct correlation between improving living and working conditions and having a healthier population.

Governments need to focus on better, not more facilities and realise that failure to take action has long-term financial implications and that the greater the investment, particularly among young children, the higher return in human capital, as spending less on social welfare per capita raises mortality rates.

Mr Needle quoted Article 3 of the Lisbon Treaty: “the aim of the EU shall be to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens”, saying that all Commission departments need to get involved in improving safety and security, environmental sustainability and energy efficiency and eliminating poverty as this will help improve health.