Dan Cauchi : From health kick to goal

At the recent European Health Forum Gastein, a group of “young Gasteiners” blogged live from the talks. A selection of the blogs are on the BMJ blogsite. Tessa Richards, assistant editor, BMJ, also attended the conference. You can read her blog and introduction to the “young Gasteiners” here.

Dan CauchiGOAL! Definitely the best, most interesting lunch I’ve ever been to, hands down.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the session, so when the five main speakers jogged in to the sound of a referee’s whistle dressed in blue-and-black-striped football shirts and shorts, I had an inkling that this wasn’t going to be your average boring business lunch.

The entire discussion was peppered with flavourful football terms and references to fouls, yellow cards, dribbles, and offlines. And, they all made sense! Use of the ref’s whistle was limited to speakers going off the point or exceeding their time limit, which stopped long-winded speeches in their tracks.

It was a fun discussion all the way through, though the topics were covered in a serious and professional manner. This is what public health should be like – fun, interesting, focused, and useful – a different take. Why shouldn’t top-notch ideas be generated in a relaxed, comfortable environment?

Sharp, pointed questions were addressed to pharmaceutical company representatives regarding their expressed commitment to actually improving health, particularly since they are seen by certain patient and health professional groups as “the devil incarnate.” There is a feeling out there that pharmaceutical companies are playing around with existing drugs which they know will make it to clinical trials, rather than engaging in truly novel research which can lead to bigger breakthroughs. Is this excessively cynical? What do you think?

“Health in all policies” was a recurrent topic brought up by various speakers and participants. The fact that policies from other parts of the EU (economic, social, etc) can influence health, and that the health of populations will in turn play an important role in shaping future policies, is both an encouraging and sobering thought.

Gender discrimination in research, women’s health, and the biological differences that exist between men and women which are still not yet fully appreciated by companies, was brought up. As was the issue of the difference in longevity between men and women (“Do women kill men?”), and the fact that although women live longer, they do so plagued by chronic illness and disability. More research and political clout should be aimed at increasing the number of healthy, functional life years, rather than simply addressing biological age.

To achieve this, it is imperative for different organisations, patient groups, health professionals, NGOs etc to team up and act synergistically  – “it’s not a battle of the sexes.” – “Socioeconomic factors and changing life circumstances hit people, and hit them hard. When life hits, women get poorly…and men die. In Russia and Glasgow, the average male life expectancy is 54 years.”

An interesting point: “The only way to combat the tobacco industry’s powerful lobbying is to counterattack by addressing the same populations targeted by the industry.” Do you agree? How?

Towards the end of the session, an interesting point made by the Minister of health for Cyprus provided a suitable conclusion:

“Every minister in every ministerial cabinet is a minister of health. Pressure needs to be made on other ministers as well, in order to achieve lasting and concrete health change. Before becoming minister of finance, one should be the minister of health!”

And finally, with an evaluation sheet where you could score (and I quote): from 10 = world class; to 1 = England on a bad day. Or even a good day! – well, it was a lunch guaranteed to be a roaring success.

Kudos to the organisers! I’ll definitely be coming to the rematch next year.

Dan Cauchi is a medical doctor, specialising in public health. He is currently reading for a Masters in public health at the University of Malta, with a special interest in promoting good health (particularly obesity-related issues) and e-health. He is currently conducting social research in this area.You can read more blogs from the Young Gasteiners on the BMJ blogsite. The rest can be read on www.ehfg.org