European lessons for the Netherlands: a holistic view on health

Rens Koele | Consultant Public Affairs

July 6, 2020

Healthcare is essentially an exclusively national matter within the European Union. However, EU policy has a major impact on our lives and our health.

To better understand this, we need to make a greater distinction between healthcare and health. I see the entirety of health care providers who focus on maintaining and improving health status as healthcare, while health simply means not being sick.

Policy can affect your health, but at the same time not change your (health)care. Because care is an almost exclusive national matter, the focus in Brussels automatically shifts to health; the domain which it can influence. European policy is therefore focused on specific tendencies and we can learn important lessons from them, especially in the context of Covid-19. Here is an overview of four main trends:

Trend 1. Everything is health

Article 168 (1) of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) states that any European policy and activity must respect the protection of human health. Despite obstacles to creating a European health care policy, this article leaves a lot of room for the prevention of mainly chronic diseases.

The new European Farm to Fork strategy is aimed, among other things, at promoting the consumption and production of plant food sources. Similar examples of policy strategies can also be found in the areas of transport (in relation to clean air), healthy personnel planning (in relation to mental health care), youth policy (in relation to tobacco and alcohol consumption), etc. The first large-scale European Commission specific plan focused on healthcare, Beating Cancer Plan, is 75 percent focused on cancer prevention and early detection. This is also related to a recent appeal “do not wait for vaccine, but work on a healthy lifestyle” by 1,600 Dutch healthcare providers regarding Covid-19.

Trend 2. Sustainable health and care

In line with the first point, the EU is strongly committed to the relationship between health and going green. The entire healthcare chain is responsible for approximately 4 percent of global CO₂ emissions. This sector that includes a profession that takes the Hippocratic Oath, contributes so much to environmental damage; a paradoxical phenomenon. Eating more vegetables, legumes and fruit not only leads to less demand for care, but also to fewer emissions, which in turn also leads to less demand for care.

A successful climate policy protects us from the many negative consequences of climate change on our environment and health. Modernization of purchasing policy, food chains, residual products and safe and green chemistry are important themes that the entire healthcare chain must tackle. Due to the internal market, European rules and regulations are often leading in determining the standard for this.

Trend 3. Personal digital care

The challenges for healthcare systems posed by Covid-19 are unparalleled, but this need has also led healthcare to unprecedented digital growth that has been spoken of prophetically for years. Digital care is becoming an even more essential part of our healthcare system, from electronic patient records to telehealth and from AI-assisted radiology to self-measurement.

The EU is aware that digital care is only of value if we, as people, are in control and involved. In the policy document Shaping Europe’s digital future, a special chapter focuses on health and care. Here, the EU primarily assumes the coordinated role of the internal market by focusing on secure data across borders, data for personalized care and personal care, resulting in patient empowerment. In the Dutch Covid-19 response, there have been many healthcare providers who have started working with more user-friendly products from big tech across the umbrella of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). At these moments, let’s not forget that the GDPR is a European initiative.

Trend 4. Universal healthcare

Covid-19 has exposed even the most developed countries to the fact that universal health care for all (UHC) is a challenging but necessary goal. Without a healthy world population there can be no healthy world. This is also in line with Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s recent appeal to not forget, or put Africa at a disadvantage, in the Covid-19 approach, which is also in our own interest.

In June 2019, the European Union once again sealed its partnership with the WHO by making a concrete commitment to UHC in 2030. In this way, care is part of a geopolitical game, in which Europe plays a greater role than the Netherlands on its own.

What do we learn from this?

We see that the member states often provide care independently, but the health standard is set in Brussels. This standard is progressive in nature, in terms of sustainability, person and patient focus and technology. Our healthcare system is therefore evolving into a future-proof system.

Within Europe, the Netherlands is a relatively healthy country with a well-functioning care system. So why should we look to Brussels for advice? The EU’s specific role for health means that it must look at care from a different perspective. And successfully; healthcare plays an important role in various political themes, from climate policy to geopolitics.

In the Netherlands, Covid-19 has ensured that the government has played a greater role in healthcare. Until recently, care has too often been framed by economic drivers. Health gains should more often be a policy goal in themselves, as should environmental and financial gains. This is a basis principle for any policy emanating from the European Commission. The Netherlands can learn from this because a broad view is exactly what our health needs. Our health is holistic and cannot be placed in one policy framework.


Photo by Frederic Köberl via Unsplash.