Your vote counts: On Sunday, June 9, 2024, Germany will vote on the future composition of the European Parliament. In addition to other major issues in the European Union (EU), such as climate or asylum policy, the European elections will also focus on health. According to a survey, EU citizens see public health as one of the problems that needs to be addressed most urgently[1].

Health policy is largely in the hands of the EU’s nation states. However, the European Union supports individual member states – for example with guidelines or financial support. A number of examples show how EU decisions influence our local health care.

Cross-border health threats

Since the Corona pandemic, we have had an idea of ​​why health policy cannot be negotiated only within the borders of nation states. In the case of cross-border health threats such as a pandemic, the EU coordinates the risk and crisis management of the member states.

This involves, for example, monitoring health threats and reporting them at an early stage, as well as preventing and dealing with them. In this context, the individual EU states can also seek independent and scientific advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Tablets are arranged in the shape of the African continent.

Medicines and medical devices

Various authorities decide whether a drug is approved for the market – sometimes even national ones, for example if a drug has already been approved in another EU country. In many cases, however, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) must decide on approval in a centralized procedure. This is the case, for example, with drugs for rare diseases or drugs with new active ingredients for the treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, viral diseases, autoimmune diseases and other immune deficiencies.[2]

The EU is also addressing the issue of supply shortages. It stipulates that member states help each other out in the event of a shortage of medicines. Similar to the procurement of corona vaccines, the EU Commission continues to encourage EU countries to buy other medicines together. The EU has also drawn up a list of essential medicines. Shortages of the medicines listed there in particular must be avoided, as there are no alternatives and a shortage could be dangerous for patients.[3] Other solutions to address the shortage of these medicines should be developed.

EU pharmaceutical strategy stars symbolic medicine medication pills tablets

The EU’s new pharmaceutical strategy

The European Commission recently presented a pharmaceutical strategy. The corona crisis also shows why it is important. The key points at a glance go to Article

Health promotion and disease control

The EU is developing a number of topics on health promotion and disease control. Two examples:

Cancer

The European Union has identified cancer as one of its health policy priorities. It has therefore developed a “Europe Beating Cancer Plan”, a package of measures worth 4 billion euros. Ten flagship initiatives are intended to reduce the number of people affected by cancer.

One of the aims is to ensure equal access to diagnostics and treatment, such as medicines. This has not been the case up to now: the rate of breast cancer survivors in the member states currently differs by up to 20 percent.

Prevention also plays a major role. According to a recommendation from January this year, the number of vaccinations against human papilloma viruses (HPV), which are responsible for cervical cancer, and against the hepatitis B virus (HBV) should be increased. Early detection tests can also save lives. However, the number of people at risk of cancer who receive preventive care varies greatly from country to country. For breast cancer, the figure is between six and 90 percent, depending on the country. For cervical cancer, the figure is between 25 and 80 percent.[4]

tobacco

Tobacco consumption is the leading cause of premature deaths in the EU, accounting for almost 700,000 deaths per year. Yet these deaths are precisely those that are preventable.

The EU Tobacco Products Directive has been in place since 2014. It is known for the mandatory inclusion of health warnings in combination with so-called shock images on cigarette and tobacco packets. The regulation also includes a ban on sales-promoting and misleading elements on packets. Manufacturers are also required to report new types of tobacco products to EU countries before bringing them onto the market.[5]

Another approach taken by the EU is the directive on taxing tobacco products to reduce consumption, especially among young people. There is also a recommendation from the Council of Europe to member states on smoke-free environments to protect people from passive smoking.

A man sticks a nicotine patch on his upper arm.

Patient rights across borders

EU law states that all citizens of the member states have the right to access medical care – even if they are not at home but in another EU country. This also includes the right to reimbursement of costs for treatment in another EU country.

The European Union also specifies the conditions under which patients can deliberately travel abroad to receive medical treatment and in which cases they will be reimbursed for the costs.

European Health Data Space (EHDS)


The European Health Data Space (EHDS) is an idea that the EU member states have agreed on together with the EU Parliament and the European Commission. The EHDS is intended, for example, to make it possible for patients to have a legal right to and easy access to their health data, such as X-rays, in electronic form.

Thanks to EHDS, health data can also be used for medical research throughout Europe – in compliance with data protection regulations.[6] This can be useful in cancer research, for example, because without the participation of cancer patients in clinical trials, medical care cannot be further improved.

Electronic health services (eHealth)

One of the European Commission’s goals is to expand digital healthcare and care. As one measure, a digital eHealth services infrastructure has been set up since 2019. For example, patient records and electronic prescriptions should also be able to be exchanged across national borders.

Innovative care models such as telemedicine are also being expanded. The aim is to better meet the increasing demand for healthcare services and make care more individual and patient-oriented.[7]