The safety of patients: what role for the EU?

  • Posted on 24.05.2012

The safety of patients: what role for the EU?


David Byrne

Former EU Health Commissioner and Patron of Health First Europe


The current situation for patient safety is alarming in Member States.  It is estimated that 37,000 deaths occur in Europe each year from preventable infections acquired while receiving treatment.  Yet, this figure published by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), could very well be a low estimate as Member States differ in their measurements of healthcare associated infections (HCAIs), often in how frequently data is collected, for which infections data is collected and how data on infections is reported.  This is of particular importance because when we talk about patient safety, we often do not have comparable information to really understand what the state of patient safety in Europe truly is.  That is to say, we do not always know which healthcare settings are safe when we seek care.

Patient safety encompasses various aspects of quality of care such as hygiene standards, training for professionals, screening of patients and patient empowerment.  Responsibility for many of these safety measures rests with the Member States, but I believe that the EU has a significant and extremely important role to play to ensure the safety of patients.  As the former EU Commissioner for Health, current Patron of Health First Europe, and as a potential patient myself, I believe the EU should foster greater patient safety in Member States through its role as a facilitator of best practices, but also by encouraging Member States to adopt a harmonised system for data reporting so that a true picture of safety for patients can be realised.  Much could be achieved by adopting the available mechanism of the Open Method of Coordination.

The issue of harmonised reporting systems was recently discussed in depth at the Health First Europe Open Forum Debate on Patient Safety in the European Parliament for the launch of HFE’s Recommendations on Patient Safety and Healthcare Associated Infections.  The meeting provided the opportunity to discuss current challenges to, and solutions for, patient safety in Europe, with a variety of experts from the European Commission, European Centre for Disease and Prevention Control (ECDC), European Parliament, German Coalition for Patient Safety, World Health Organisation, and European Patients’ Forum. The high-level debate focused on two key challenges: thinking innovatively about patient safety in Europe, and how to be better at decreasing HCAIs in Europe.  Both areas necessitate EU involvement to establish a higher degree of protection for patients.

The broad participation of stakeholders at the event served not only to highlight the common concern for patient safety in the EU community, but also the need for greater EU guidance in this area.  Numerous participants discussed the need for more EU coordination and support for patient safety measures particularly because of the various challenges faced by health systems today (changing demographics, shortages of professionals, austerity measures) which have made it more difficult for Member States to focus on aspects of quality of care such as safety.  Setting improvement targets for safety, minimum standards for safety, and harmonised reporting processes at EU level, were highlighted as the most important areas for EU intervention from the diverse stakeholders in attendance.

As with any issue at the EU level, political will is vital to ensure that patient safety becomes a priority on the EU health agenda.  However, it is clear that through initiatives like that of Health First Europe, policymakers and stakeholders alike are building the momentum needed to ensure that patient safety is a political priority at all levels.  Higher standards for safety can be met not by adding cost, but by employing cost-cutting technologies and instituting new models for care and prevention.  Sharing best practices and providing a better data set to understand the current state of patient safety, greater EU involvement will undoubtedly achieve safer healthcare for all Europeans.

– David Byrne, Former EU Health Commissioner and Patron of Health First Europe


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