Innovation must be the cornerstone of future health care

Covid-19 has demonstrated that health care systems across the world – not least in Central and Eastern Europe – were broken. How can we take on board the experience of the past 18 months and make them more resilient? 

Strengthening primary health care provision and boosting innovation are crucial not just for overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic, but to ensure that health systems are able to withstand sudden shocks – such as a pandemic – while continuing to offer successful outcomes for other illnesses.

This was one of the key conclusions reached during the Future of Emerging Europe Summit, held in Brussels on September 15, which brought together leading figures from the health care community to discuss the way forward for the sector in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Primary health care must not just be accessible and affordable, it also needs to be accepted,” says Kostas Deligiannis, general manager of GE Healthcare Eastern Europe.  “But it isn’t, because of a lack of trust.”

Deligiannis puts the blame for this on the fact that the quality of primary health care has been abandoned for many years.

“As a result, when people need health care they go directly to hospital emergency departments, where the kind of personal relationships that should exist at community level are missing.”

This is one of the reasons, he suggests, for the lack of acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccines in Eastern Europe.

“Without primary health care there is nobody people can talk to. When they do see people offering information, perhaps on the television, it is not somebody that they have a personal relationship with. We must strengthen primary health care. There has to be a plan.”

Building coalitions

Jan-Philipp Beck, CEO of EIT Health, a network of best-in-class health innovators backed by the EU, says that we need to build “broad coalitions” of  stakeholders in the health sector that can facilitate the involvement of ordinary people, listening to their concerns.

“For new technology, such as artificial intelligence, to be successful, we need to win people over,” he says.

“That cannot be achieved by the health care sector and governments alone. It needs the input of communities, this is essential.”

On vaccinations, he says that many of those who have yet to get the jab are not fundamentally opposed, but are waiting for their concerns to be addressed, perhaps – echoing Deligiannis – by people that they know and trust.

“This is what we ought to focus on, creating ambassadors for the vaccine.”

Irma Veberič, general manger Poland at pharmaceutical and diagnostics giant Roche, agrees.

“Trust is at the centre of the issue,” she says. “In the countries where vaccination rates are low, trust is also low. So the question is, what can we do to change this?”

She suggests that we should learn from countries where vaccination campaigns have been successful, such as Denmark, and concentrate on promoting common goals.

“Denmark is an interesting example,” says Beck. “It has got rid of all Covid-19 restrictions because of its high vaccination rate. We need to show that this is the pathway for society as a whole as opposed to constant and costly testing, which some people have got used to but should not be an alternative.”

The role of the private sector

One of the main concerns of the health care sector professionals over the past 18 months has been that because the need to fight against Covid-19 has been so important, resources have been directed away from other areas.

Deligiannis says that part of the problem has been a failure to make efficient use of the private sector, which in some countries in the emerging Europe region, such as Poland and Romania, accounts for around 30 per cent of capacity.

“The private sector has not been part of response plans. It’s time for governments to realise that they have two pillars of health care: public and private. Both need to be a part of any strategy for the future.

“They can work together. But we need a plan for the next ten years, so that we are well prepared for the next major crisis.”

Much of the negative impact caused by Covid-19 on health care capacity has been felt by cancer patients, who have seen treatment postponed, or diagnosis delayed.

“I think that next year we will see the true size of the problem,” says Veberič, “and it will be big.”

However, she adds that while Covid-19 has demonstrated just how inefficient our health care systems are, this could be used as a turning point – but only if we learn from our mistakes and take on board positive examples.

Like Deligiannis she says that partnership between the public and private sectors is crucial, and points to the development of the Warsaw Health Innovation Hub that brings together a number of public and private partners and is unique in the region, as one such example.

“Of course, we are still at the beginning, but such a public-private partnership can increase the stability and resilience of the health care sector and hopefully motivate other countries to launch similar initiatives,” she says.

The cost issue

Cost, however, is going to be an issue – a crunch is coming, Beck warns – which means that resources need to be directed towards creating innovation in areas where it is needed most, to ensure as many positive health outcomes as possible at an affordable price.

“Innovation is indeed the cornerstone of future health care,” agrees Deligiannis, adding that GE Healthcare has created a number of initiatives to promote and nurture innovation, such as its HelloAI programme – developed with EIT Health – that focuses on a personalised curriculum to upgrade medical students’ knowledge in AI basics, and Reactor’21, an accelerator based in Hungary helping young medtech start-ups navigate their way through a tightly-regulated environment and gain access to expertise.

Veberič meanwhile says that we need we need a transformation in mindset, to stop seeing heath care purely as a question of cost.

“We have been moving forward with small, incremental changes. If we continue along this path, we will not succeed. We have to view health care as an investment,” she says.

“By doing that, emerging Europe – indeed Europe in general – can become more competitive, because in recent years we have been falling behind the United States and – especially – China.”

Often after a crisis such as Covid-19, lessons which should be learnt are forgotten. Is there any evidence that this time will be different?

Beck says that we have reasons to be optimistic.

“The EU has realised that it needs to play a larger role, in monitoring capacity, in ensuring supplies of medicines and equipment, so that’s a good start,” he says. “And I also think that across the board there has been a realisation that we can’t be caught out again.”

You can watch the full discussion between Kostas Deliagannis, Jan-Phillip Beck and Irma Veberič – moderated by Emerging Europe’s Craig Turp – here.

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