Health is Wealth

23 June 2006

Catherine Le Galès-Camus, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO), began by stressing the relationship between a society’s health and its well-being. “We need to do more,” she said. A healthy population is the most productive promoter of wealth and a sustainable society. Conversely, ill health is a key cause of poverty and poverty a main cause of illness.

The WHO is promoting ‘Health for All’ and emphasising that an unhealthy lifestyle is the leading cause of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. In Europe, these are responsible for 86% of all fatalities each year.

As well as having a huge impact on individuals and their families, chronic diseases take a large economic toll on society as a whole. They reduce individual citizen’s quality of life, and the money they spend on treatment reduces the amount they put into personal investments, which are also a source of the nation’s wealth. For example, in the US, medical bills for heart disease ran into an estimated $350 billion in 2002.

However, there are clear ways of preventing these diseases by changing lifestyles, said Dr Le Galès-Camus. Obesity is “one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st century”, accounts for 7% of Member States’ health care spending and results in 800 million lost working days every year, while tobacco is responsible for millions of smoking-related deaths worldwide annually.

Prevention is the key

“We need to prevent these diseases, not just to cure them,” said Dr Le Galès-Camus, who added that preventive measures could be implemented quickly, for example by encouraging people to increase their physical activity, eat more healthily and give up smoking.

The EU is now a force for change at the global health level, propelled by concerns about its ageing population and the implications for health costs. But to be effective, the EU and individual Member States must coordinate their efforts.

Dr Le Galès-Camus stressed that a cross-sectoral approach is needed which includes the environment, transport and urban planning to ensure effective action. However, she acknowledged that there might be policy clashes, where, for example, economic policies encourage certain forms of agriculture that concentrate on the production of ‘unhealthy’ products.

Health is everyone’s business

Governments should mainstream health at all levels and it should be at the core of all policies, she insisted, since “health is everybody’s business”. The WHO is working to build a healthier, stronger, more competitive society.

Dirk Ramaekers, Director-General of the Federal Knowledge Centre for Health Care in Belgium, echoed Dr Le Galès-Camus’s view that the main focus should be on prevention, but doubted that current measures to, for example, cut smoking and encourage physical exercise were completely effective.

Additional problems are caused by the fact that resources are currently focused on health care and cure, rather than on prevention. Mr Ramaekers called for more capacity-building at the EU level, more investment in developing implementation strategies and more assessment of current treatments.

Investing in health is a smart move

Anne Hoel, Policy Officer at the European Public Health Alliance, said health problems which led to early retirement, sick leave and poor educational achievement were costly for the EU. “Investing in health is a smart move,” she said, if the Union wants to increase its economic growth.

All the risk factors that lead to the main chronic diseases are preventable in a cost-effective way, provided the health sector coordinates its work with other sectors. National legislation - for example, making seat-belts in cars mandatory and putting health warnings on cigarette packets - also plays an important role.

Ms Hoel said taxing alcohol, tobacco and foods high in sugar and salt was a key area for action, as this cut consumption and generated revenue for health care. Another was to ban advertising on tobacco and alcohol and on unhealthy products specifically aimed at children. She also argued that health should be mainstreamed in all policies, including agriculture and education.

To illustrate her arguments, Ms Hoel pointed to Finland, which had lowered the risk of heart disease in men by 65% in 20 years by encouraging healthy eating and more physical exercise. This shows that most diseases are preventable, if there is enough ambition to carry policies through. “Never forget that health is a human right, not an economic instrument,” she said.

Improving methods for financing European-wide health

Felix Unger, President of the European Academy of Science and Arts (EASA), summarised the report on ‘Health is Wealth’ which the academy prepared for the European Parliament. Its goal was “health for all based on solidarity” (i.e. the general good), since “life is the highest asset we have, and medicine is the cultural endeavour with which we deal with man”.

The report points out that 25% of European GNP is spent on its health care systems, and the sector is Europe’s largest employer. It is now facing the challenge of an ageing population and an increasing proportion of retirees.

The report’s premise is that decisions on medical treatment should be based on benefits, not on costs, and that a health system should deliver the optimal form of medicine currently available.

The report analyses the current ways of financing individual medical treatment, as well as overall health care provision, and proposes a central fund to finance treatment. It concludes that there should be a European Health Care Market, based on the patients’ needs. It also stresses the importance of increasing the quality of medicine and depoliticising health provision.

In his concluding speech, Arto Koho, health attaché at the Finland’s Permanent Representation to the EU, said the Finnish Presidency would emphasise health prevention, the need to work towards a better understanding of the relationship between disease and lifestyle, and enabling people to have greater control over - and improve - their health.

The Finnish Presidency will aim to mainstream health issues in all policy areas, prioritise public health programmes, and give health ministers a key role in the Lisbon strategy.