With a total budget of €321.5 million, ‘Together for Health’ is the EU’s strategy that aims to create a framework for European health issues and to address health concerns over the period from 2008 to 2013.
As the strategy is coming to an end, it is important to review the progress that has been achieved and the plans that are in place for the near future. Empowering patients through the exchange of health knowledge and the creation of reliable health information is one of the key objectives of this strategy, which focuses strongly on increasing health literacy amongst European citizens.
The concept of ‘health literacy’ refers to people’s ability to make informed judgements about medical treatments and disease prevention methods by applying their own knowledge of healthcare or by consulting relevant information sources. Insufficient health literacy can give rise to concern and an EU-funded survey pointed out that 47% of Europeans have low health literacy. This can have negative impacts upon a person’s health and may also become a financial burden to society. Especially for patients with chronic diseases, understanding medical information can allow them to gain more independence by managing their own symptoms instead of relying on frequent communication with medical professionals. A lower dependence on medical professionals can thereby decrease costs for both patients and society alike.
While some may say that the solution to increasing the level of health literacy lies in relevant school programmes and adult education, it is also important to look at the already existing means that can be used to empower patients and enable people to help themselves. In fact, more than 30% of Europeans from the age of 16 to 74 say that they use the Internet as a tool to learn more about health conditions. Whilst it is important that citizens take the initiative to inform themselves, this can also give rise to concern for public health experts because of the ever-growing amount of inaccurate information available on the web. In light of this concern, one of the strategy’s goals is to provide reliable information and minimise the amount of incorrect sources.
In order to achieve this goal, the EU launched a webpage named ‘Heidi’, which stands for ‘Health in Europe: Information and Data Interface’. This webpage provides updated articles and facts about health conditions, diseases in Europe, and European health policies. It also contains maps for users to visualise areas that are affected by certain diseases. Heidi contributors are public health experts from various member states who have to undergo a formal application procedure and are subsequently recognised by the EU. Heidi aims to fully support the needs of Europeans for accurate and useful health information and in order to reach a broad audience, the webpage has been made available in all EU languages.
In addition to Heidi, the EU introduced pharmacovigilance legislation to reduce the risks that medicines could pose for patients. This brings the importance of medical safety to a European level and allows the EU to examine, within the shortest possible delay, any medical products that are authorised in more than one member state and that are likely to pose a risk to the health of patients. Any information that could benefit patients in the EU can be shared amongst member states, in order to increase overall medicinal safety in the region.
Furthermore, the EU requires pharmaceutical companies to report on the reasons for the withdrawal of certain medical products, in order to provide greater transparency for European citizens. As for preventative measures, the legislation aims to enhance the approval process for new medicinal products by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies and market authorities. This legislation is said to be the largest change to EU rules for medicine in the past 17 years and it is expected to be fully implemented across member states by the end of next year.
Increasing health literacy and patient protection may appear to be issues that specifically benefit individual citizens within the EU. However, this initiative reaches beyond the simple fact of increasing health literacy. It actually ties in with the EU’s overall objective to tackle inequalities between member states. Disparities in health literacy have been found between member states, and many are said to be linked to economic austerity. The current efforts hence work towards reducing the existing disparities in order to ensure that citizens across Europe gain sufficient access to medical information. Hopefully, this will empower citizens to take greater responsibility for their own health and to live longer and healthier lives.
David Casa is a Nationalist MEP