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European Gastein Health Forum

Good to be back at the European Gastein Health Forum to moderate the opening plenary. But the theme Health systems in crises: countering shockwaves and fatigue is sobering.

Above the Gastein Valley in Austria, the sun beams down from a cloudless azure sky and delegates gathered for the 26th Gastein Health Forum bask in the unexpected September rays. It is hard not to feel optimistic despite the sober theme of the conference: Health systems in crises: countering shockwaves and fatigue.


Health systems in Europe were already feeling the strain pre-COVID. The pandemic, war in Ukraine, cost-of-living crisis and climate emergency are stretching health systems, and the health and care workforce, (HCW’s) to their limits.


Despite an increase in the number of HCW’s over the last decade, the WHO estimates there will be a shortage of 4 million health and care workers across Europe by 2030.

Describing it as the “great attrition” the WHO cites an ageing population of medics

-thirty percent are expected to retire in the next 10 years- lack of long term planning, the massive backlog following the pandemic heaping more pressure on health services, the grim toll of 49.475 health care workers who died of covid-19 in the European region plus burnout and fatigue. Many are leaving public sector healthcare, moving the private sector or migrating.

Dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions has seen strikes in many countries. As I write this another 3 day walkout by doctors in England is underway with over a million appointments rescheduled since the strikes began last December.

WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge says 40% of health workers are grappling with anxiety and depression. He calls for a need to focus on retaining the workforce and proper remuneration, ensuring supply meets demand and supporting health workers with new digital tools and well-regulated AI.

Flexible working and HCW’s mental health and well being are now top priorities.

Europe’s longest serving Health Minister and deputy Prime Minister of Malta Christopher Fearne has grounds for optimism as the population is healthier than ever although he says that we are at risk of losing the gains we have acquired over the years.

Solutions to counter the crisis in many of the discussions include a focus on resilience, prevention, more investment in health, tackling health inequalities, strengthening primary care

Sandra Gallina, Director General for Health and Food Safety DG SANTE points to the achievements of the European Health Union including the vaccine strategy, the Cancer Plan’s new Cancer Screening Scheme which will ensure that 90% of the EU population will be offered breast, cervical and colorectal screenings by 2025, plus the strengthening of the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease prevention and control and the development of the Pharmaceutical strategy for Europe.

While many at the conference remarked on the scant reference to health in Commission President State of the Union Address, Ms Gallina was satisfied that Ursula Von de Leyen had mentioned the building blocks of the health union at the outset to her speech.

But the question on everyone’s minds is the EU elections in 2024. What kind of priority will health be in a newly elected EU?


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