Tessa Richards: Jobs for health

Tessa RichardsAs UK participants returned from last week’s European Health Forum in Gastein (read more), Austria, newspaper headlines calling for “Cuts in wasteful NHS bureaucracy” and “Pay freezes for high earners” will have reinforced the messages they heard. Debate focused on the impact of the financial crisis on health and what governments should do about it. While saving money by reducing waste in Europe’s” inefficient health systems” was one message, the central one was that health is largely determined by factors outside the health system, and that the rallying cry’s should be “social justice” and “jobs for health.”

Few other meetings rival the Gastein forum as a place to listen and network with Europe’s policy cognoscenti. The pace is demanding and the lingua franca hard to follow, but you can corner people who are usually hard to track down. Among them the EU officials who run Europe’s public health programmes and research arms, MEPs, staff from the European Observatory, WHO Europe officials, and a smorgasbord of other public health experts, researchers, patient organisations, health professionals and industry representatives from the 53 countries that make up the WHO Europe region.

Robert Madelin, the head of DG SANCO (the EU’s Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs) describes Gastein as a key event on Europe’s health calendar but the Gastein organisers show no signs of complacency. Their investment for a healthy future has included bringing in new blood and establishing an annual European health award.

These look to have been good moves. This year an enthusiastic clutch of “Young Gasteiners” were prominent among the well seasoned Gastein hands. I talked to one from the UK, who explained that member states of the EU27 had each been asked to select two promising recruits; hand picked on the basis of CV’s which suggested strong research or policy making potential – along with the ability to speak English.

Their presence was enlivening, and they also made themselves useful. They filmed the famous, captured their sound bites, added picturesque views, chose the background music and made “Gastein the Movie.” The aim was to “capture the essence of the meeting”  in a 10 minute video, EHFG2009: The Movie. The 10 minute video got plenty of applause when it was played at the end of the meeting and so did the winner of this years European Health Award for a cross border initiative that judges thought had reaped dividends. The ceremony was Oscar-style, and the prize went to primary care researchers in the Netherlands.

No blog could cover the content of the many Gastein sessions, which this year included plenaries and parallel sessions on sustainability of health systems, health inequalities, health technology assessment, knowledge transfer, and the mobility of health professionals. Nor is it easy to transmit the optimism that was in the air. The belief that, somehow, the recession might make countries in Europe focus on the desirability and value – not least to health and social welfare – of reducing their growing socio- economic divides. Evidence that this happening is thin on the ground, although the post-crisis experience of Iceland provides a welcome glimmer of hope.

When you return from a conference nuggets stick in the brain. The hordes of people in Munich central station, bent on celebrating Oktoberfest – untouched, it would seem, by the gloom of the recession. The outbursts of several delegates about the unconscionable amount of money countries are spending on swine flu. And the nervous references to the health impact of social networking sites. In the Netherlands the failure to achieve an HPV vaccine target coverage of 70% has been laid squarely at the door of teenage girls propagating misinformation by twitters.

Tessa Richards is an assistant editor with the BMJ.