Is Europe's Health Research Focus Becoming Too Narrow?

June 21, 2012
Peter O'Donnell
Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Applied Clinical Trials

Another straw was borne on the wind today in Brussels, suggesting that the focus of European research in healthcare is becoming tighter and tighter on a selected range of topics.

Today’s straw was a unanimous vote in the European Parliament’s health committee to back a closely targeted program of healthcare research. Known as “Health and Growth for Citizens”, this program will squirt some $75 million a year into research projects for the next seven years.

Nothing wrong with that – but most of the money will be directed into just a handful of areas, and most of them will not be of much benefit to the broad range of medicines research. The program has four goals: boosting innovation, improving access to better and safer healthcare, improving the prevention of disease, and protecting citizens from cross-border health threats.

At least the innovation heading should provide some funding for some drug research. But even here the focus is being narrowed down. Françoise Grossetête, the French MEP who is piloting the debates on this issue in the parliament, said today: "For me--and my colleagues supported me on this--the program should focus more on age-related sicknesses.”

Very worthy and very sensible. As Grossetête said, and as we all know, these diseases “are affecting an increasing number of people--more than 7 million people in Europe suffer from a form of dementia.” And of course this has important health, economic and social consequences. So of course it is, as she added, “essential to act.” Good for old people, good for society, she suggested: "In preserving the individual's health and his/her capacity to remain active, both physically and socially, we will be able to optimise people's impact on productivity and competitiveness".

But, as she went on to argue, there is a need to back not just innovation, but prevention. The attention to tackling age-related and neurodegenerative diseases is of course needed. But the priority it is assuming (and not just in the debate on the healthcare program, which is only one straw–there are many other similar straws being blow from other areas of European healthcare debate) risks switching attention away from other disease areas. The insistence on prevention–equally defensible in itself–equally risks switching funding out of medicines research and into other aspects of health policy.

Some of the pressure behind this trend comes from crude economics. With less money to go round (and how well Europe is aware of that at present!), everyone is looking for maximum bangs for bucks. "Improving the efficiency of our health systems has become even more urgent since the economic crisis,” stated Grossetête as she debated the programme today. Much of the pressure comes from organizations that advocate a major switch towards prevention generally in health policy, arguing eloquently about the merits of healthy diets and lifestyles, and the cost-effectiveness of prevention. And some of the pressure comes from organizations that simply do not like medicines, and actively dislike the pharmaceutical industry, and are enjoying being swept along on the prevailing wind.

But is Europe right to squeeze research so tightly into the pursuit of limited goals? Yes, yes , yes, Alzheimers is a massive problem that needs massive attention, and prevention and healthy lifestyles will be good for everyone (except perhaps fast-food manufacturers and whisky distilleries), and limited funds do require careful decisions on allocation. The future, however, is an open book, and as far as healthcare research is concerned, it holds promises that may never be realized if pages are ripped out, folded down, or pasted over by well-meaning but not necessarily omniscient policymakers.

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