Future of healthcare
Imagine a future where cancer, cardiovascular diseases (chronic diseases) and rare genetic disorders can be either prevented or cured.
Good health is the foundation of vibrant lives, thriving communities, and forward movement. It is the backbone for prosperity, recovery, and societal transformation.
Over the past decades, healthcare innovation and collaboration among the different healthcare stakeholders have resulted in astonishing medical and scientific progress. We will see more innovation addressing currently unmet needs in many disease areas and bringing benefits to patients and society over the next decades, too. We have an unprecedented opportunity to design healthcare systems fit for the future where societal and patients’ unmet medical needs are at the centre of decision-making. Patients should be the only North Star for healthcare systems’ meaningful evolution.
EU-level healthcare policies
The European Union’s legislation, policies, and funding dedicated to overcoming healthcare disparities have played – and should continue to play – an important role in the healthcare systems’ evolution.
For example, until today, EUR 40 billion have been set aside in EU Member States’ Recovery and Resilience Plans to support health investments and reforms by 2026. In parallel, the EU4Health program will fund actions aimed at building stronger and more sustainable healthcare systems that deliver better care for EU patients.
Non-communicable diseases continue to account for 80% of the overall burden of disease in Europe. To address this issue, in 2021, the European Commission launched Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan setting out a new EU approach to cancer prevention and treatment. Later the same year, it was followed by the EU ‘Healthier Together’ Non-Communicable Diseases Initiative, which aimed at identifying policies and action to reduce the burden of other major non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Challenges: reduced life expectancy, belated treatment, overwhelmed medical workforce
Despite these positive developments, the COVID-19 crisis has outlined many structural healthcare systems’ challenges created by years of underfunding and systematic inefficiencies, such as delayed diagnosis and access to treatment and healthcare providers’ shortages. According to the OECD Health at Glance Report 2022, the pandemic led to a reduction of more than one year in life expectancy in the EU in 2021 compared with the pre-pandemic level – the largest drop observed since World War II. Furthermore, delayed cancer diagnoses and treatments come at high costs, both for patients and for health systems. Delaying surgical treatment for common cancers increases the risk of death by about 7% while delaying chemotherapy or radiotherapy by four weeks increases
the risk of death by up to 13% (Hanna, 2020).
‘Missing patients’ for cancer care, as reflected by lower numbers of both hospital stays and cancer-related operations are, in most cases, related to fewer new patients entering the cancer patient pathway because of delayed diagnoses. Depending on the procedure, it fell by 10% to 20% on average. We are likely to feel the consequences of this for years to come, especially with regard to patients’ outcomes and survival rates (Maringe, 2020).
Furthermore, WHO projects a global shortfall of 15 million health workers by 2030. Countries face difficulties in the education, employment, deployment, retention, and performance of their workforce.
The International Council of Nurses (2022) warns of a rise of nurses’ strikes in response to ‘government failure to tackle the root causes of weakened and collapsing health systems’. Salaries and working conditions, as well as recognition of the profession and lack of upskilling and training, are the key complaints from the nurses’ unions. More specifically, in Europe, we also have an ageing workforce as one of the key concerns: 13 of the 44 countries have a workforce in which 40% of medical doctors are aged 55 or older.
Cross-border collaboration among stakeholders and policymakers will help address the unmet needs of European patients
Despite the challenges, innovation and multistakeholder collaboration have the potential to create a fit-for-the-future healthcare ecosystem where all major chronic, rare, and genetic diseases may be cured or prevented in the long term. The way forward requires a holistic approach that includes increased public investment in disease prevention, early detection, timely access to the best treatment options (better uptake of procedures and medicines), a transformation of patient pathways, better working conditions for healthcare providers, and incentives rewarding and facilitating health innovation.
A shift is needed towards integrated and outcomes-driven patient care. In many European countries, this shift may also need re-adjustment of treatment centres, the creation of additional excellence centres to provide the best possible treatment options and increased cross-border collaboration among neighbouring countries. The EU Cross Border Healthcare rules, best practice sharing, benchmarking, and increased EU funding could support this shift.
Investing in the future: technology, data, and public policy
Policymakers and healthcare stakeholders should also leverage technology, data, and public policy to
increase evidence-based decisions and reduce inefficiencies and waste in the healthcare systems. The EU’s ambition to facilitate European Health Data creation has a great potential to unlock the value of health data, improve patients’ outcomes, and inform better treatment decisions. However, in order to truly serve patients, this plan will require substantial commitment and investment in infrastructural set-up.
Transformation of patient pathways alone will not be sufficient in addressing the unmet needs. More funding is needed to ensure early diagnosis, screening programs, and effective access to treatments and attract and retain the best HCPs talent. Health expenditure per capita increased by over 5% on average across EU countries in recent years, according to the annual data provided by the World Bank and OECD. However, this is not sufficient in the context of ageing and inflation. Healthcare needs to be seen as an investment rather than a cost, as it is a key strategic sector for EU growth and job creation. New healthcare financing sources and models should be further analyzed and explored to be fit for future healthcare systems.
There are great opportunities in front of us to improve Europe’s health through better prevention, curing, and intercepting diseases. The healthcare industry plays a key role in delivering breakthrough and incremental innovations in addressing unmet medical needs and partnering with healthcare providers and policymakers for this challenge.
European Commission (2021a). Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/ have-your-say/initiatives/12154-Europes-Beating-Cancer-Plan_en.
European Commission (2021b). The EU ‘Healthier Together’ Non-Communicable Diseases Initiative: Reducing the Burden of non-communicable diseases, https://health.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2022-07/ncd_initiative_factsheet.pdf.
Hanna, T. P., King, W. D., Thibodeau, S. et al. (2020). Mortality due to cancer treatment delay: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 371, m4087. International Council of Nurses (2022). ‘ICN: Increase in Strike Action by Nurses is a Symptom of Global Healthcare Crisis’. Daily Nurse, July 12, https://dailynurse.com/icn-increase-in-industrial-action-by-nurses-is-a-symptomof-global-crisis/
Maringe, C., Spicer, J., Morris, M. S., et al. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK: a national, population-based, modelling study. Lancet Oncology, 21(8), 1023–1034.
OECD/European Union (2022). Health at a Glance: Europe 2022: State of Health in the EU Cycle. Paris: OECD Publishing, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-issues-migration-health/health-at-a-glance-europe-2022_507433b0-en.