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On 18 March, the European Commission hosted an event to tackle the issues of health inequalities across Europe.  Given the economic crisis and the reduction in expenditure by European health systems, the event was timely and was a reminder of the fact that health is a right for everybody and the most vulnerable must be protected.  The full day conference brought together policymakers and civil society from a variety of disciplines to debate, discuss, and drive the next steps at EU level towards fairness in health.

The leaders of the European Commission opened the conference focusing on the fundamental rights of European citizens to quality healthcare.  European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Viviane Reding, highlighted the fact that “the right to healthcare transcends many policy areas including gender equality, data protection and anti-discrimination.” Commissioner for Health, Tonio Borg, agreed and noted that while there are positive signs such as gaps narrowing amongst Member States in infant mortality and life expectancy, “Europe is still not a union in health and the divergences are still too great.”  Commissioner Borg noted that “no health system in Europe is sustainable without reform” and suggested that the Member States still need to be convinced to change health structures for long-term sustainability and fairness.

Representatives from diverse constituencies presented keynote speeches looking at how inequalities in a variety of disease areas impact on the overall health of society.  Michel Roland from Doctors of the World, suggested that patient needs must be respected regardless of immigration status, sexual orientation, ethnicity or health status.  He declared that, “Medical ethics must come first.”  Robert Johnston from the European Patients’ Forum also echoed this sentiment and called for EU equal treatment legislation to protect patients based on health status and chronic conditions to prevent discrimination which is strongly linked to health inequalities.

The panel sessions of the conference focused on three priority areas from a European Commission perspective – equity in addressing chronic diseases, HIV/AIDS, and health of people in vulnerable situations.  The objectives of these sessions were to look at how to improve health in each of these areas, improve access to healthcare and to combat discrimination, with the aim of producing conference conclusions from the debates to inform on the next steps at EU level.  From a chronic diseases perspective, it was clear that equity remains a challenge especially given that the European region of is the most affected by chronic diseases of the six WHO regions and the trend is on the increase.  Michael Hubel, Head of Unit for Programme Management and Diseases at DG SANCO, remarked that “the way patients interact with the health and social system is incredibly important for how diseases develop.” Discussing health inequalities in cancer, coronary heart diseases and mental health, the panelists agreed that there are still great stigmas attached to certain populations and more links between primary and social care are needed to protect vulnerable people.

The conference clearly highlighted that there is still a significant problem in Europe in providing access to healthcare for all.  Whether due to discrimination (at individual or systemic levels) or because of poor implementation of laws to protect the vulnerable, promotion of best practices and greater research and data need to be supported to encourage truly equitable access to care.