Harnessing the power of partnerships at Europe’s largest public health conference

The 2022 edition of the European Public Health Conference – Europe’s largest gathering of public health associations, institutes and professionals – convened in Berlin on 9–12 November, culminating in calls for investments in stronger health systems in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking part in the conference with a WHO/Europe delegation of experts, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, urged the public health community in the region to adopt a “dual-track” approach to stronger health systems in countries, focusing on both the provision of high-quality services and emergency preparedness and response.

“In a world of ever-increasing health crises, at a time of economic and financial turmoil, we must accept and work within this new paradigm. On one hand, we must invest significantly in preparing for mounting and often overlapping emergencies,” Dr Kluge explained. “And on the other, we must ensure that we redouble our efforts to prevent illness, promote health and strengthen day-to-day essential health services.”

Key ingredients of strong and resilient health systems
Organized by the European Public Health Association (EUPHA) – the umbrella organization for public health associations and institutes across Europe – the annual conference took place in person for the first time in 3 years. Over 2500 participants descended upon Berlin, eager to exchange views and perspectives on how to prepare health systems for the unexpected.

WHO/Europe hosted or participated in a series of sessions on topics including health financing, health workforce, data and digital health, emergency preparedness, refugees from Ukraine, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), health in prisons, and cross-border health at the subregional and local level.

During the pre-conference, the Regional Director’s Advisory Council on Innovation for Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDAC) met to discuss how the EUPHA and its partner networks can further engage in the NCD agenda across the European Region, including on: cardiovascular diseases, childhood obesity, digital marketing, greener and healthier cities, alcohol taxation, and data and digital health.

The conference’s first plenary, organized by the WHO Barcelona Office for Health Systems Financing, focused on the theme: “Can people afford to pay for health care?” Discussing the latest evidence on financial protection in the European Region, the panel looked into raising awareness of the most prevalent gaps in coverage in the Region’s health systems, the policies that cause them and what countries can do to address them.

Although countries in the Region have committed to meeting the goals of universal health coverage – ensuring that everyone can use the quality health services they need without experiencing financial hardship – research from the WHO Barcelona Office shows that out-of-pocket payments still lead to large inequity in financial protection within and across countries in the Region.

Presenting the latest findings from WHO/Europe’s flagship reports
WHO experts had an opportunity to engage with conference delegates around some of the recent findings from WHO/Europe’s latest flagship reports, the “European Health Report 2021: Taking stock of the health-related Sustainable Development Goals in the COVID-19 era with a focus on leaving no one behind”, the “WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022” and “Health and care workforce in Europe: time to act”.

On health workforce, participants agreed on the need to urgently improve working conditions and develop strategies that attract and retain health workers to avoid health systems from collapsing in the next 10 years. On obesity, experts provided new perspectives on this crucial public health issue, discussing current strategies to tackle the obesity pandemic and possible scenarios for the future. And in a workshop presenting the European Health Report, participants heard about the importance of addressing gaps in data and health information systems to inform policy and decision-making.

WHO/Europe connecting and engaging with the European public health community
One of the highlights of the conference was the opportunity for the public health community to finally network and meet in person again, which had not happened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO/Europe was one of a set of organizations hosting a “stand” at the conference, where participants could stop by to learn more about WHO’s work, meet with staff and discuss how WHO can better support the public health workforce in the Region.

Many students stopped to ask about ways to engage more with WHO, also through WHO’s global internship programme, currently set to resume in January 2023 after a 3-year hiatus.