A few weeks ago, the Brussels public health policy community met in the Gastein Valley, a location by some, referred to as the Davos for public health. The European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) is Europe’s health policy platform and has developed into an annual event, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders, from politicians and decision-makers to industry, experts, academics and civil society. As the leading health NGO in Brussels, EPHA did not miss this opportunity to voice the concerns of our members and European citizens throughout the various sessions and networking events. Although the nature of the forum is European, there was a global presence, with the European Commission DG Sante, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Bank representatives in attendance.
On its 25th anniversary, the EHFG took stock of the substantial accomplishments in public health over the years but more importantly, it looked forward and discussed the challenges and policy options for actions urgently needed across sectors. It was referred to as: “the window of opportunity to co-create a true European Health Union”. This was a bold step to uncover possibilities for public health in the European Union and globally.
Titled a “Moonshot for a true European Health Union”, this year’s topic did not fall short of the ambitions to ignite a move forward for public health. “If not now, when?” was the urgent call to action at the first physical edition since the start of the pandemic. At a time when Europe and Central Asia are living through a permacrisis that stretches beyond the pandemic, climate change and war was the focus of the first plenary session.
A message nudged at this year’s European Health Forum: we need health-inclusive policies. Environmental, climate, and trade policies are only a few of many examples where health-in-all would support the path towards an economy of well-being, and public health promotion. This common goal cannot fall shy from collaborative action as citizens, organisations, industry, and governments have a vested stake to work together. Now is the time to act for the European Health Union. The message is clear, and if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us is that cooperation is essential in protecting people’s health. EPHA supports this forward-thinking and advocates for its implementation in governance.
The second plenary discussed the role of different stakeholders in the One Health approach meaning and how this can offer a step-change to ensure to tackle health threats and build a healthier, more equitable and sustainable future for all. When it comes to health inequalities, recognising the huge knowledge gaps is essential when developing legislative proposals. Speakers addressed how the provisions and access to healthcare are unevenly distributed across Europe. For instance, the density of nurses and doctors in Western Europe is significantly higher than in other parts of the region.
Speaking of the health workforce, a session dedicated to them brought up the need to scale up, upskill, and protect the people on the frontlines. A recent report by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, ‘Time to Act’ described how the health and care workforce in the European Region currently faces severe challenges, namely related to age and mental health. Change begins with acknowledging these challenges. Moving forward, health policies should improve the work-life balance, remuneration, training and research opportunities, and promote a positive work culture for health and care workers. “The pandemic has shown the strengths and fragilities of the health and care workforce. The recovery of health systems and future preparedness will fail unless we properly invest in health and care workers,” said Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director of Country Health Policies & Systems at WHO/Europe.
The forum covered many other topics, such as better food systems in Europe, long COVID, and addressing the knowledge gaps. I should say though that to and from Gastein is a long way from home but it was certainly worth the time. A Moonshot for a true European Health Union, If not now, when?