At the end of May, COVID-19 has taken the lives of 360,000 people worldwide and this number will rise for months to come. As healthcare providers focus on this new pandemic, many heart disease patients are being side-lined and risk growing sicker or dying. Could Europe’s response to the virus offer pointers for reforming healthcare systems, benefitting people with heart problems and the wider population?
During the Friends of Europe debate ‘The ticking time bomb: Cardiovascular diseases’, livestreamed from Brussels on 28 May 2020, four online participants from European institutions and the medical industry explored lessons learned from tackling COVID-19. In the words of Tamsin Rose, moderator and Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe, “This pandemic has changed everything and nothing will be the same – including the way we configure our healthcare.”
Participants emphasised how patients with non-communicable diseases, especially heart complaints, have also suffered due to the virus. Around half of European cardiovascular patients have avoided hospital for fear of catching the virus or have seen their appointments postponed or cancelled. This poses a huge new healthcare problem, since cardiovascular disease accounts for 1.8 million deaths yearly in the EU.
Learning from the COVID-19 response
After a slow start last March, EU health providers went into overdrive to fight COVID-19, enjoying unprecedented collaboration with public and private partners. One key lesson learned from that effort is the importance of everyone working together for a common health cause. Europe must now build stronger and more resilient healthcare systems, which would automatically benefit heart disease patients and many others too.
“Treatment of cardiovascular disease has long suffered from a lack of innovation and investment, yet the rapid response to COVID-19, with clinical trials organised in days, shows health breakthroughs are possible with the right effort,” said Barbara Casadei, President of the European Society of Cardiology.
Other participants echoed her call to cut European healthcare red tape and to facilitate data sharing for patients. Jean-Luc Lemercier from Edwards Lifesciences, representing the cardiovascular industry, pleaded for more use of smart technology such as remote monitoring to assist heart disease patients at home. Brando Benifei, MEP and Co-Chair of the MEP Heart Group, said Europe should promote healthy ageing campaigns and prioritise fighting cardiovascular disease.
More healthcare action and collaboration Europe-wide are essential to address problems like heart disease. So there was broad praise in the meeting for EU4Health, the new health programme for 2021-2027, with a proposed budget 23 times higher than 2018’s.
“Our ambitious programme underlines how COVID-19 will speed up the Commission’s health work and how we intend to make the best use of our resources and time,” concluded Andrzej Rys, from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety.
Livestream begins at 18:00 CEST
As Europe gradually emerges out of the lockdown imposed to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, Friends of Europe explores how the EU can respond to the long-term impact of the crisis. A series of online debates looks at the impact of the pandemic on climate ambition, the economy, security and health systems.
The impact of COVID-19 on health systems is wide-ranging and extends beyond the consequences of the pandemic itself. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) patients, for example, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Most have been avoiding the hospital out of fear of being infected, raising the question of whether we will see an increase in CVD deaths once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
This online debate will explore policy options to ease the CVD burden on our health systems. Can investments in CVD technology and hospital infrastructure better prepare us for the next pandemic? What can be done to make early detection and treatment the standard for people at risk of CVD? A high-profile group of policymakers and key experts in the field will share their views and address questions from the online audience.
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From New York to Madrid, cardiologists are wondering where their patients are. While COVID-19 wards are packed, some hospitals report a drop of more than 50% in emergency procedures for heart attacks and strokes. COVID-19 poses a challenge to the entire population, but cardiovascular patients are particularly vulnerable to the disease. Doctors emphasise that they remain available for consultations, but not all cardiovascular patients are receiving the care they need as some planned surgeries have been cancelled and patients avoid the hospital out of fear of being infected.
Every year, cardiovascular diseases (CVD) cause over 1.8 million deaths – or 36% of the total number of deaths – in the European Union. Changing demographics will only exacerbate the situation. The outbreak of COVID-19 illustrates that the vulnerability of people over 70 suffering from comorbidities – in particular CVD – causes an unprecedented burden on our healthcare systems, economies and societies. If the EU is to turn the tide, taking a closer look at current and future challenges is a vital first step. When emerging from the crisis, the EU should consider investing in decreasing the vulnerability of the ageing population to lessen the burden for hospitals and healthcare systems. As the share of persons aged 65 years and older is projected to increase from 19% to 29% by 2050, early detection and treatment of CVD should become the standard. It is clear that CVD touch every citizen and policymakers should evaluate the instruments at hand to reduce the current and future burden.
- What is needed to make CVD a focal point during this EU mandate?
- Not every CVD patient in need of a hospital intervention is treated for their life-threatening condition today. What actions should be taken to avoid a rise in CVD deaths once the crisis subsides? What can be done to avoid this from happening during a next pandemic?
- What can EU policymakers do to make early detection and treatment the standard for people at risk of CVD?
Member of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) of the European Parliament and Co-Chair of the MEP Heart Group
President of the European Society of Cardiology
Corporate Vice President Europe, Middle East, Africa, Canada and Latin America regions of Edwards Lifesciences
Director for Health Systems, Medical Products and Innovation at the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety
Senior Fellow for Health at Friends of Europe
Brando Benifei is a Member of the European Parliament and Head of the Italian S&D MEP Delegation. Benifei is also the Co-Chair of the MEP Heart Group, where he works to raise cardiovascular diseases as a priority on the EU political agenda. A member of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO), he is rapporteur for the Single Market Programme and shadow rapporteur for the European Social Fund Plus. Benifei received the MEP Award for his work on employment, social affairs, and youth unemployment. Forbes included him in their 30 Under 30 Europe Policy Class of 2016.
Barbara Casadei is a British Heart Foundation (BHF) Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford and President of the European Society of Cardiology since 2018. She is also an Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, where she leads the Cardiovascular Theme of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre. Her research programme focuses on understanding the cellular triggers and substrates of common cardiovascular diseases, such as heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Since 2013, Casadei has been a fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences.
Jean-Luc Lemercier is the Corporate Vice President Europe, Middle East, Africa, Canada and Latin America regions of Edwards Lifesciences. Prior to assuming his current role, Lemercier served as the Vice President of transcatheter heart valves EMEA. Under his leadership at Edwards, the company successfully launched the SAPIEN transcatheter heart valve technology and built its leadership position in Europe. Edwards Lifesciences is the global leader in patient-focused medical innovations for structural heart disease, as well as critical care and surgical monitoring. Lemercier also serves as Chair of the Cardiovascular Sector Group of MedTech Europe, the association representing the medical technology industry in Europe.
Andrzej Rys has held several key positions in local and national health institutions, notably serving as the Director of the Health Department of the City of Kraków, President of the Polish Public Health Foundation and Polish Deputy Minister for Health, a role which put him on the negotiation team for Poland’s accession to the EU. He later founded and led the School of Public Health and the Centre for Innovation Technology Transfer at Jagiellonian University. In 2006, Rys joined the European Commission as the Director for Public Health and Risk Assessment and was later appointed Director for Health Systems, Medical Products and Innovation at the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, where he works on improving EU healthcare systems for citizens.
Tamsin Rose is Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe. Having studied international relations, she has 25 years of experience working across the European continent from Ireland to Mongolia. A natural communicator, Tamsin has been a radio reporter, worked on press for the EU Delegation in Moscow and is currently a member of the external speaker team for the European Commission Directorate General for Communication, describing how the EU works and key policies to visitor groups from around the world. Since 2002 she has specialised in public health and public participation issues, serving as Secretary General of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), and providing strategic advice for health groups on how to engage successfully with the EU.
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