Developing new partnerships for health at European Health Forum Gastein

Taking part in this year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), held virtually from 30 September to 2 October, representatives from WHO/Europe spoke about the importance of leveraging new partnerships to strengthen health across the WHO European Region. This included the announcement of the Oslo Medicines Initiative, to find ways to ensure greater access to affordable medicines while maintaining commercial viability for medicine producers.

The theme of this year’s EHFG was “Dancing with elephants: new partnerships for health, democracy, business”, with WHO/Europe and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies contributing to sessions including: improving access to medicines, amplifying people’s voices in health decision-making, and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Improving access to medicines

During the session “Finding the common beat: Towards a new vision of collaboration to improve access to medicines”, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, launched the Oslo Medicines Initiative. Dr Kluge spoke about the importance of increasing sustainable access to novel medicines, therapeutics and diagnostics. In order to achieve this, it is important to explore partnerships with private entities who manufacture medicines, to ensure that they are readily available and affordable, while also maintaining commercial viability for producers.

Commenting on this new Initiative, Dr Kluge said: “Access to affordable quality medicines is at the core of universal health coverage. We need the pharmaceutical industry to innovate, but intellectual property rights can never be a barrier for any patient, particularly the poor, to receiving life-saving medicines”.

The Initiative will function with both in-person and virtual meetings, including:

  • a series of webinars in spring 2021 with keynote speakers and panellists representing different stakeholders;
  • a physical meeting planned for spring 2022, to outline a new vision for collaboration to improve access to novel medicines in the European Region.

Speaking during the panel discussion and commenting on the Oslo Medicines Initiative, Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems, WHO/Europe, said: “Patients, health systems and governments expect the right to reasonably priced medicines to meet their needs, whilst the investors and the pharmaceutical industry expect to earn sufficient profits to compensate for the risk inherent in developing and manufacturing these medicines.

“Over the coming months, the Oslo Medicines Initiative will provide a platform for Member States and non-state actors to collaborate and set out a new vision and framework for better access.”

During the session, moderated by Dimitra Panteli of the Observatory and Dr Azzopardi-Muscat, panellists highlighted the need for greater transparency in relation to development costs and the opportunity that exists to exercise market power though working collectively.

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr Kluge also spoke at the opening plenary panel discussion on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked about the role of the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, Dr Kluge explained that the Commission has been created to offer recommendations on how societies and health systems can build back better following the pandemic and be better prepared for future health emergencies.

In addition, Dr Kluge spoke about the importance of dual-track service delivery within primary health care for health systems recovering from COVID-19, to ensure that other health conditions are addressed at the same time as managing COVID-19 cases. Turning to the European Programme of Work, mental health was also discussed, with recognition of the impact that the pandemic has had on people around the world.

Democratizing decision-making

During a session titled “Health democracy in action”, Dr Azzopardi-Muscat delivered the opening remarks. Partnerships with civil society are central to building trust in government institutions and enhancing adherence to public health measures.

The session highlighted how creating a more inclusive, participatory governance approach requires engaging experts across multiple disciplines, and dialogue with people, communities and civil society to create a high-level of transparency in how decisions are taken in health.

European Observatory at EHFG

The Observatory facilitated and participated in a range of sessions during EHFG. The common theme emerging from this series of interactive discussions was the need for closer collaboration and cooperation between countries of the European Region, to better manage the COVID-19 crisis and build more resilient systems to withstand future shocks.

Anna Sagan, Research Fellow with the Observatory, presented recently published findings on health system resilience and the importance of governance in dealing with crises, and offered a conceptual framework to help systems prepare for and cope with unexpected events.

How research informs policy in a time of crisis was the focus of Thursday’s plenary, titled “The Advisor’s Dilemma”, hosted by Observatory Director Josep Figueras, which explored the challenge for policy-makers of acting without concrete evidence (or flying blind) and communicating uncertainty while avoiding undermining public trust.

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