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Future of the European Health Union

by efn efn

Under the banner ‘A Europe that cares, prepares, and protects’, the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU aims to facilitate the reflection process on the future EU health agenda, to further develop and strengthen our EU Health Union. Over the last 2 days, the high-level summit, that brought together Ministers of Health, policymakers and experts, discussed potential new priorities for the next European Commission.

The summit put the spotlight on the three big themes of the Belgian Presidency on health: “Care”, “Preparedness” and Protection”; and stressed big challenges as shortage of health professionals and crisis preparedness, and the importance of science and solidarity to tackle health crises, as well as of the EU support to the Member States in facing such crisis through its capacity to fund research and innovation.

Regarding Europe’s preparation for the next health crisis, it was expressed that we are not fully implementing what we have learnt from Covid-19. We are now better prepared than before, but not sufficiently. At EU level, the European Commission has taken excellent initiatives such as the creation of DG HERA, great investments, joint procurement of vaccines, etc., however the institutional landscape is messy, there is no clear division of tasks, and this requires a review now, so that when next crisis happens it is clear of who is responsible for what. However, the real challenge remains the lack of political willingness.

Frank Vandenbroucke, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health and Social Affairs, Belgium, raised the key role of healthcare professionals in running the healthcare systems in the EU and tackle the most pressing challenges. As regards health workforce shortages, although it is a competency of the EU Member States, the EU can play an important role in better coordination and upscaling best practices that show the evidence of better health outcomes. Mental health crisis is a serious challenge, and the European Commission can play a key role in ensuring that it remains a priority for member states.

As mentioned by Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, the healthcare workforce, went beyond its limits during the pandemic. With the many crises we are facing today (labour, mental health, education, gender inequality, lack of financial investments, ageing, etc.), it is key to put prevention and healthy lifestyle very high in the agenda. Mental health is a crisis of the health workforce. We have seen a 62% increase in absenteeism, while 52% of the European health workforce reported burnout, which is leading many health care professionals to leave the profession. The stock of young people is decreasing, but at the same time more skills are needed to remain competitive in the workplace, thus generating an education crisis. Likewise, as women are the largest share of the health workforce, namely in the nursing profession, there is a serious gender inequality crisis, considering that women have less than 30% of leadership roles, and are at serious risks of sexual harassment and workplace violence, while doing their job. Therefore, Hans believes that this year is a great opportunity for the EU, with the review of the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, to increase resilience, as well as the Framework for action on the health and care workforce in the WHO European Region, covering the years 2023 to 2030.

The key session on the EU Workforce for health highlighted key points of crucial importance for the nursing profession, as the need to have a motivated, well-trained, and adequately supported workforce to ensure patients’ access to care, enhance patient safety, and foster improved health outcomes. Henning Ehrenstein, Head of Unit, DG Grow, European Commission, raised the need to agree on urgent need to address health workforce shortages; the EU Directive on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications provides a solid framework that enables citizens to pursue a regulated profession in another Member State; and that the EU level minimum training requirements set in the Directive are a guarantee that health-care professionals who move to work in another EU member states have a common level of competence that helps ensure patients’ safety.

Invited as panel speaker in this session, the EFN Secretary General, Paul De Raeve,  stressed the need for a future EU Health Workforce Strategy to include: Investments in nurses’ education as defined by the guidelines of Directive 2013/55/EU, Art 31; Better salaries through social dialogue; Safe Staffing Levels; Zero tolerance violence towards HCP, just to name a few priorities. But to have impact, we need to set priorities: Educate and Train your own Domestic Nursing Workforce. The European Commission, Maya Matthews, Head of Unit, DG Sante, European Commission, clearly raised the need to support frontline nurses! Maya appreciated EFN initiatives on safe staffing levels, on the EFN Workforce Matrix 3+1 and in particular the APN developments.