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What do COVID, diabetes and heart disease have in common? Despite COVID being communicable and diabetes and heart disease being chronic, non-communicable diseases, their treatment and health outcomes can both be dramatically improved by screening and early diagnosis.

As millions of people have experienced over the past two years, just a tiny sample of saliva or a nasal swab is enough to produce a clear indication of a disease, which, if caught early, creates an opportunity to treat it better and reduce its transmission. If such testing had been more routine, it could have helped prevent the spread of COVID and its variants and potentially saved thousands if not millions of lives worldwide.

While the science of testing and early diagnosis is clear, the public policy response unfortunately isn’t. Many governments still spend far more money on treatment of late-stage diseases that could have been mitigated if routine testing had identified them earlier in their evolution.

The global collective experience of COVID-19 shines a spotlight on the cruel failures of healthcare systems around the world to embrace routine testing for common diseases. The European Union, which has done a better job than some other regions in managing COVID, should maintain the positive momentum and high levels of public awareness and acceptance of routine screening to promote its use across the board.

Health First Europe (HFE) has a track record of contributing to the improvement of European healthcare systems for more than 16 years. We encourage health stakeholders and policymakers to develop and implement better plans, including investing in programmes promoting screening and early diagnosis across a wide range of disease areas.

Last September, HFE published a report, The Compelling Case for Better Screening and Patient Safety in Europe: The Example of Five Common Diseases, which emphasised the value of improved screening programmes in five chronic diseases: breast cancer; type 2 diabetes, healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) and antimicrobial resistance (AMR); heart failure; and severe combined immunodeficiencies (SCID). The report provided case studies for each of the diseases, which together aggect millions of European lives.

Right across Europe there are many national success stories and examples of best-practice that should be replicated and implemented more widely to deliver tangible benefits without starting the process from scratch. Tackling NCDs such as diabetes and CVDs will not only be beneficial for the millions of people directly affected but will also have a positive impact on the EU’s long-term social and economic strength.

We know these chronic conditions will continue to affect millions of people in Europe and further stretch our healthcare systems and economies to their limits well beyond the current pandemic. To mitigate this, political and financial support at the EU level could provide vital reinforcement to national efforts to deliver best-practice health and social care for the benefit of EU citizens’ health and well-being.

Strong action on NCDs would also help ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen Europe’s future pandemic preparedness and resilience.

Last year’s report makes clear that screening and early diagnosis are essential to better managing several diseases and underlines the major role of screening and early diagnosis in helping patients live longer and better lives.

In the context of the European Commission’s Initiative on Non-communicable Diseases, together with Health First Europe, we particularly encourage EU and national health authorities to implement the following actions

  1. Integrating primary and secondary preventive strategies through comprehensive approaches to support the implementation of best practices and to minimise current health inequalities;
  2. Encouraging participation in population-based screening programmes in high-risk populations to help detect disease early, leading to faster, more precise, accessible and affordable screening and early detection;
  3. Promoting public awareness programmes to help citizens recognise signs and symptoms of preventable diseases or conditions and understand the importance of seeking screening and early diagnosis;
  4. Ensuring that care is multidisciplinary, and that delivery is timely to empower patients with care options while guaranteeing quality;
  5. Providing patients and healthcare providers with objective and independent guidance on screening and diagnoses in the context of the new EU-supported Cancer Screening scheme put forward by the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan;
  6. Continuing investment in training for highly qualified specialists critical to quality-of-care screening and care;
  7. Encouraging the digitalisation of health services across Member States and the adoption of new medical technologies allowing for more effective monitoring and action to reduce the risk of complications and improve quality of life;
  8. Setting up a robust information system to ensure information sharing between providers and across levels of care;
  9. Ensuring patients timely, equitable access to diagnostic services and treatment through appropriate reimbursement procedure in all relevant settings;
  10. Developing an EU-wide strategy for both diabetes and cardiovascular disease screening, diagnosis, and secondary prevention, encouraging the use of common screening tools across Europe to promote the exchange of data and best practices.

Health First Europe will continue to call for more action on screening and diagnosis, as well as on secondary prevention. This is a health and social imperative because these offer improved patient safety and quality of care in healthcare settings as well as better quality of life for all in the face of growing public health challenges.

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