NHS European Office

Collaborating with our EU counterparts in a post-Brexit world | Sarah Collen

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The UK’s national expert on the EU Health Programme reflects on Britain’s involvement in the €449.4m programme and considers what lies ahead in the years to come. 

Since 2014, I have had the privilege of being the UK’s national focal point for the EU’s Health Programme, which is the funding instrument attributed to the EU’s role in protecting human health.  

Through this programme, the EU complements national policies designed to tackle major health problems, improve public health, prevent physical and mental illness and disease, and minimise sources of danger to physical and mental health.

In my role, I have communicated this funding opportunity to the NHS and other UK stakeholders, provided assistance and advice to organisations across the UK willing to take part, and promoted project results and findings. 

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, I have been inundated with messages from a range of organisations enquiring about their continuous eligibility to take part in projects under this Programme, and expressing concerns in case this is no longer possible going forward. 

This EU programme, despite being relatively small in size, has indeed proved to be very popular in supporting projects in a wide range of important areas of health policy. For example, if we look at the area of mental health – which is very topical as today is World Mental Health Day! – the programme has funded projects with UK partners in areas such as use of technology to manage mild depression, tackling eating disorders in young people and on suicide prevention.  

Furthermore, colleagues from South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust were involved in an EU collaborative joint action (joint initiatives conducted by national health authorities, other public bodies or non-governmental organisations across the EU) on mental health and wellbeing, looking at how to make the case for mental health to be addressed in all policy areas (not just health). 

Of course the EU’s Health Programme goes beyond mental health, supporting a broad array of other important cross-border health areas structured around the following main four topics:

  1. promoting health, preventing diseases and fostering supportive environments for healthy lifestyles
  2. protecting EU citizens from serious cross-border health threats
  3. contributing to innovative, efficient and sustainable health systems
  4. facilitating access to better and safer healthcare for EU citizens.
The scope of the projects is diverse. UK partners have been involved in a variety of projects, including: 

  • prevention and implementation of policies on rare diseases
  • exchange of good practice on dementia care
  • prevention and care of chronic conditions
  • quality of response to communicable diseases
  • reduction of health inequalities
  • facilitation of organ donation across the EU
  • collaboration on eHealth
  • creation of patient registries
  • health technology assessment cooperation and exchange of good practice on patient safety and antimicrobial resistance. 
One area of particular value added has been in protecting UK citizens from serious cross-border health threats. In this area, Public Health England has worked in collaboration with colleagues across the EU, allowing access to resources which would have been inaccessible at national level. 

For example, they have been involved in an initiative which has provided an integrated laboratory network for detecting highly infectious pathogens (EMERGE JA). This is particularly important because diseases such as Ebola do not respect borders.  

Public Health England has also been successful in receiving funding from the health programme for a number of projects in the area of health security, related to chemical hazards. This has allowed for formal and informal exchange of information and best practice, an opportunity to benefit from pooled expertise and EU-funded research, improved alertness and situational awareness of cross-border threats, a strengthening of the UK’s national plans by coordinating with other European countries, and an opportunity to influence European policy and implementation.

“Taken together the health programme has provided us with a robust framework to help support applied collaborative research and development in the area of health protection and chemical hazards. The findings of this work provide a platform to support the EU in dealing with serious cross-border chemical health threats that could impact on the health and wellbeing of EU citizens.” Rob Orford, Public Health England

As with other European funding streams, in light of Brexit, the long-term future of the UK’s participation in the programme is in question. Maintaining our ability to continue to collaborate with EU counterparts in those areas of public health where it makes sense to work together on shared challenges and priorities is highly important so that we can tackle common challenges together in a more effective way. 

As the planning process for the 2017 projects begins, it is important to provide clarity both to prospective participants from the UK and to our European partners on the UK’s participation in the programme.  

I can confirm that the UK government has provided clarification that the Treasury is committed to underwrite UK involvement in all direct competitively bid projects with the European Commission beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. This reassurance includes the EU Health Programme, which should allow UK organisation to continue as active members in the consortia emerging on next year’s calls for proposals.

For those who want to know more about some of the activities funded through the EU Health Programme, there are a series of webinars on the horizon, which you can register to attend for free.

Sarah Collen is the UK national focal point for the EU Health Programme and senior policy manager at the NHS European Office. Follow the organisation on Twitter @NHSConfed_EU

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