On 14 June, Health First Europe attended the Copenhagen Conference 2012 “Gender and Health Through Life” organised by the European Men’s Health Forum, the European Patients Forum, the European Cancer Patient Coalition, the European Cancer Organisation and the Men’s Health Society in Denmark.  The conference brought together experts in men’s and women’s health, including Health First Europe Honorary President John Bowis, to discuss gender dimensions of healthcare policy.

Opening the two-day conference, the Minister for Gender Equality in Denmark, Mr. Manu Sareen, stated that,” looking at gender and health differences will undoubtedly benefit men, women and society” particularly because men and women have differing knowledge of healthcare and have differing healthcare problems.  Professor Alan White of Leeds University agreed, and discussed specific issues facing men including premature deaths.   Current demographic challenges faced by Europe will increase because it is predicted that by 2060 there will be nearly 24 million less men of working age due to premature deaths, according to Professor White.  He stated that “over 630,000 male deaths occur in working age (15-64) in Europe compared to 300,000 women” with nearly all of the deaths preventable.  He argued that these deaths are due to social structures and policies – not biology – and are attributable to less use of and access to healthcare services by men in addition to lifestyle issues and choices, socialization and concepts of maleness including risk-taking, bio-physiological issues and attitudes of health care professionals.  He argued that the EU needs its own health strategy to combat these challenges for men’s health.

Giving the women’s health perspective, Mrs. Maria Merce Rovira, from the European Institute of Women’s Health, also referred to the demographics of Europe and the impact of gender on healthcare.  She explained that women make up more than 2/3 of the population over 65 years of age in Europe and on average live 6 years longer than their male counterparts.  However, she emphasised that “healthy life expectancy is only 18 months longer than men.”  This is in part also due to non-biological factors such as the fact that women do double work (home and at work), earn lower salaries, have higher risks of stress from violence and depression and also suffer in greater numbers from sleeping disorders, low physical exercising due to time schedule changes and eating disorders.  Ms. Merce Rovira argued that the key to tackling these challenges for women is promoting health policies that enable older women to maintain quality of life and remain independent.

Dr. Carsten Hendriksen from Copenhagen University in Denmark called further attention to the ageing process and both the similarities and differences between men and women as they age.  He suggested that the best way for both genders to age well is to have good genes, graduate, be employed, avoid chronic diseases and have a close social network.  However, he also argued that they best strategy for increasing the healthy ageing of both genders is physical activity warning that the “sedentary lifestyle is dangerous.”

Following discussions about the proven differences between men and women in terms of health behaviours and outcomes, the afternoon session brought together keynote speakers and thought leaders to discuss whether such differences require gender-targeted health policies at both the EU and national level.  Dr. Noel Richardson from Ireland shared that driving the policy agenda is a critcial step for encouraging governments to look at gender policies in healthcare.  He said that “a more targeted and focused approach to men’s health is needed” but involving all governmental departments in the process can be very difficult.  Scott Williams, representing the US government, agreed with Dr. Richarson and added that policymakers believe that “women’s health saves money, while men’s health costs money” because women seek preventive care where men do not.  He shared that a report undertaken in the US estimated that ignoring men’s health actually cost the government $5 billion annually due to the fact that fewer men think about their health until it is too late.

Additionally, further panelists discussed how to approach gender in healthcare policy and make facilitate policy changes.   Isabel Yordi Aguirre from the WHO Regional Office for Europe suggested that expanding the idea of health is of great importance in terms of minimizing health inequalities and integrating the social and gender approaches to all policy.  Additionally, HFE Honorary President John Bowis gave the political perspective for achieving more holistic healthcare policy suggesting that the key is to “get the attention of politicians” so that “health and gender health is in all policies.”

Overall, the conference began an important debate about how policymakers and governments may be able to achieve better health outcomes for both genders by considering how the genders differ in their use of and access to healthcare.  Participants agreed that understanding the needs, interests and challenges in health for both men and women could provide a foundation for more holistic and effective health policy.