Saturday, November 18, 2006

To Montreux, for the annual European Public Health Association meeting. This is the key meeting for public health professionals in Europe and I’ve only missed one in its fourteen years. I am only involved in the association fairly peripherally (I was a member of the executive board for a number of years). However it remains a great pleasure to see how well it is doing. This year saw a record attendance – 1,000 people from all over Europe as well as significant numbers from countries as far away as Korea, Japan, the USA and Nepal.
One of the most exciting developments has been the creation of special interest sessions. These cover topics as diverse as health services research, utilisation of medicines, chronic diseases, and child and adolescent health. Obviously it would be possible for all these groups to run their own conferences but bringing them under the umbrella of EUPHA creates so many opportunities for cross-linkages and for people who, while not focusing exclusively on these issues, can get a taster of the key contemporary issues.
As always there were many excellent presentations and the problem we now face is that, as the conference has grown, there are more parallel sessions so it is really difficult to choose which to attend. I was especially pleased to see several papers on health in the former Soviet republics of central Asia, a region that is too often ignored. I also listened to some excellent papers on social capital and health, including a fascinating study of the association between religion and suicide in Switzerland. It made use of the Swiss National Cohort, a unique database using probabilistic linking to match census and mortality records; it is apparent that this will be an extremely valuable resource in the future. Our team had quite a few papers on topics ranging from the impact of health care in Ukraine to the integration of health in hospital design and the problem of health surveillance in non-states. It was also good to see results from some of the Europe-wide databases, such as SHARE (Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe). Europe is at an enormous disadvantage compared to the USA because of the failure to invest in the data resources that are needed to undertake the research it needs to inform policy. When we undertook our review of the contribution of health to the economy in Europe for the European Commission we had to rely disproportionately on American data sets. This is something that has to be addressed at a European level but it is far from clear who should do it, not least because most of the possible organisations are dependent on short funding cycles with no guarantee of continuity. DG Research is sympathetic but its role should only be to fund development work. DG Sanco must be involved but, especially after suffering drastic budget cuts, is in no position to do much. EUROSTAT would be a logical player but its track record is, to say the least, weak. Perhaps this is something that the European Parliament could look at?
Unfortunately, this year I could only stay for the first part of the conference as I have to go to South Africa for a weekend meeting. This meant that I missed hearing my colleague Nina Schwalbe give what will be the final Ferenc Bojan lecture, although I am grateful to Nina for sharing the text with me in advance – it will be an excellent presentation. The lecture was named in honour of a former EUPHA president and very close friend of mine who established the Hungarian School of Public Health but was killed in a traffic accident ten years ago. I was privileged to give the first lecture in his memory. Things have changed enormously in central Europe, with Hungary and its neighbours now members of the European Union, something that still seemed a long way off when Ferenc died. It is now time to move on and his memory will be honoured in other ways at future conferences.