Brussels health community relieved that the EU’s work to date on health will continue, despite worries that it would be deprioritised in favour of other policy areas

After a less than plain sailing confirmation process, the next generation of European Commissioners (2019-2024) took office on 1 December, a month later than planned. Under President Ursula von der Leyen’s guidance, it will focus on six headline ambitions for the next five years: a European Green Deal, an economy that works for people, a Europe fit for the digital age, promoting our European way of life, a stronger Europe in the world and a new push for European democracy.

While there were fears amongst the Brussels health stakeholder community that the Commission’s health department (DG SANTE) would no longer exist in the new Commission, hopes are high that the new Health Commissioner will do far more than just business as usual. Cypriot Stella Kyriakides has been tasked with the role, a psychologist by training and passionate patient advocate, having served as the President of breast cancer patient organisation Europa Donna following her own battle with the illness. And Commission President von der Leyen herself will be an ally for the community, given her own background as a medical doctor.

What healthcare topics will the new Commission prioritise to ensure the health and wellbeing of EU citizens?

As a recent Incisive Health report shows, 73% of Europeans are more likely to vote for a European Parliament candidate who is willing to address health inequalities. With this in mind, can Stella Kyriakides deliver decisive policy action to ensure the health and wellbeing of EU citizens?

In her mission letter to Kyriakides, von der Leyen outlined what we can expect from the Commission in the next five years to support Member States to improve the quality and sustainability of their health systems. Accordingly, we can expect action on ensuring the supply of affordable medicines, the effective implementation of the Medical Devices Regulation and exploring the potential of e-health and creating a European Health Data Space. Combatting antimicrobial resistance and vaccination complete the list, alongside the creation of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

A flagship initiative to tackle cancer across Europe

The focus on cancer was a key element of the centre-right’s campaign to lead the Commission, and therefore it’s unsurprising that Kyriakides has been asked to prioritise a Beating Cancer Plan for Europe. In her political guidelines for the new mandate, von der Leyen explicitly references the need to support Member States in improving cancer control and care (the only mention of health topics in the guidelines at all).

Speaking in the European Parliament in November, von der Leyen highlighted ambitions for the plan to be launched in early 2020. It is understood that the plan will include actions to strengthen the response to cancer at every key stage of the disease: prevention, diagnosis, treatment, life as a cancer survivor and palliative care.

It is not only Kyriakides and her team in DG SANTE who will focus on cancer in the foreseeable future. One of the research missions under the future EU funding programme, Horizon Europe, will focus on cancer and there are even rumours of a special European Parliament committee dedicated to the topic.

Are there any other topics on Kyriakides’ agenda?

At her recent hearing in the European Parliament, Stella Kyriakides made a number of concrete commitments in order to gain support from MEPs, including the importance of action in the field of organ donation and the need for a new European strategy based on an evaluation of the previous EU plan (2009-2015) which is due shortly. On mental health, Kyriakides promised to work with other Commissioners to include a mental health across different policy areas. Whether the Commission will propose an EU Mental Health Strategy, as called for by EU Member States in recent Council Conclusions, remains to be seen.

One of her biggest challenges will be the finalisation of the proposal for a Regulation on EU wide Health Technology Assessment (HTA), which has been fraught with difficulty since it was brought to the table in early 2018 due to hesitancies from some of the bigger Member States like Germany and France. Kyriakides has said she will work closely with all stakeholders to find consensus and move the proposal forward.

As concluded in Incisive Health’s polling report on EU action in health, no single actor will be able to tackle the healthcare challenges facing the EU alone. We look forward to working with Stella Kyriakides and the new Commission to bring stakeholders together and inform better policy in health for the benefit of all EU citizens.