6th March: Brussels
In June, WHO is organising a ministerial conference on health systems in Tallinn, Estonia. The theme is “Health Systems, Health and Wealth”. The concept underpinning the conference is that all three are mutually linked. Health systems can contribute to better health and to economic growth. Better health reduces the burden on health systems while supporting wealth (economic growth). Wealthier populations are healthier and can afford better health systems. The challenge is to create virtuous circles in which each reinforces the other.
The European Observatory is producing the background material for the conference. This includes a set of policy briefs and two books, one on health system performance, edited by Peter Smith and Elias Mossialos, and one on Health Systems, Health and Wealth, edited by Josep Figueras, Nata Menabde and myself. We were in Brussels for a workshop with the authors of our book.
Many of the elements are already there. Marc Suhrcke, Lorenzo Rocco and I have now published extensively on the contribution that good health makes to economic growth through greater productivity and higher labour force participation. Ellen Nolte and I have shown, in our work on avoidable mortality, how health systems contribute substantially to better health (unless, as in the case of the US system, they are highly dysfunctional – see blog entry of 8th January 2008). The challenge is to bring it all together.
There are, however, some gaps. Although collectively those of us in the room have a great deal of direct experience of health policy in Europe, it is really difficult to find anyone who has made a comparative study of how health policies are made (or not made). One of my favourite quotations is Bismarck’s saying that “two things should never be made in public, laws and sausages”. It may be that the experience of observing policy being made is so awful that few people want to watch it twice! Whatever the reason, there is a desperate need for politician scientists with a comparative perspective who would like to study European health policy (aspiring PhD students please get in touch).
The book will not, however, just be a rehash of what is already there. One of the most interesting areas is the relationship between the health system and the macroeconomic environment. We are often told about the need to ensure a profitable pharmaceutical industry because of its contribution to the economy. But given finite resources, is this really the best use of money? On the available evidence, the jury is still out. On the other hand, there is growing evidence of other ways in which health systems contribute to the economy. Peter Smith cited evidence from China where, especially in rural areas, the health system has largely collapsed. As a consequence, families are hoarding money as a form of insurance against ill health. This is sucking huge sums out of the economy, with serious macro-economic consequences - a warning, for those who seek to shrink the scope of publicly funded systems.