The EU and health policy

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24 / 6 / 2016 12.24pm

Health policy and the organisation, financing and management of healthcare is a national responsibility of member countries, the EU also undertakes health-related activities, in particular, by supporting co-operation between member states in order to protect and promote public health and to enable the free movement of people around the EU. 

Public health policy

Article 168 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union sets out the objectives of EU health policy and the underlying legal basis for it. The emphasis is on co-ordination and co-operation, particularly in order to prevent major health threats such as human illness and disease.  

Examples of the traditional EU-wide public health work include joint actions to address major diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDs, coordination on health threats including communicable diseases, and major campaigns against drug abuse.

The scope for EU legislation in the area of health policy is specifically limited, but incentive measures to promote and improve health can be adopted and this provides the basis for the health programme 2008-13 which provides EU funding to support the health agenda. The innovation and EU funding section of our website provides more information about how the health programme and other EU funding programmes can support innovation in the NHS.

The EU is also responsible for setting policy on plant and animal health and food safety, both areas having important implications for human health. Together with public health and consumer policy, these form the responsibilities of the EU health commissioner, supported by the European commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers, often known as 'DG Sanco' (a shortened version of its name in French). The commissioner for health and consumer policy is Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Presidency of the council

In addition to the agenda taken forward by the European Commission, the country holding the presidency of the council will usually set some priorities of its own in the area of health, which it will pursue during its six month at the helm. Italy currently holds the presidency and among its health priorities will be review of the Regulations on medical devices and in-vitro diagnostic medical devices, combating HIV/AIDS, patient safety, dementia and palliative care.

Wider EU policies and health

The EU also pursues the protection and promotion of health through activities in other policy areas, as the treaties include a general requirement that health should be protected in all community policies. For example, the EU single market rules provide the legal basis for laws on recognition of professional qualifications which allow healthcare staff to work anywhere in Europe, as well as the EU-wide requirements for health warnings on tobacco products.

Common minimum standards on employment rights and health and safety at work are also set at EU level, for example, through the Working Time Directive, and developments in these areas are of key importance to the NHS in its role as Europe’s largest employer.

The European Commission has a legal duty to consult representatives of employers and employees on all employment-related proposals and this is taken forward through a process called social dialogue. The NHS European Office represents the NHS in the EU social dialogue process through our membership of two European social partner organisations, HOSPEEM (representing employers in the hospital and healthcare sector) and CEEP (representing the range of public sector employers).

Influencing EU Policy section gives more information about the implications of specific EU policies and initiatives for the NHS. 

More information about the impact of EU law on the NHS and the NHS' engagement with European affairs can be found in this edition of Eurohealth, a LSE Health and European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies publication.

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