Health ministers tackle rising medical costs

Health costs in Switzerland are among the highest in the world Keystone

The spiralling cost of medical care in many western European countries has topped the agenda at an international conference in the French capital, Paris.

This content was published on May 13, 2004 - 12:21

The meeting, hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), was attended by the Swiss interior minister, Pascal Couchepin.

The two-day event, which brings together representatives from the OECD’s 30 member states, was held just over two months after figures revealed that health costs in Switzerland were the second highest in the world.

According to the OECD, Switzerland spent the equivalent of 11 per cent of Gross Domestic Product – some SFr48 billion ($37.7 billion) – on healthcare in 2002.

“The costs in Switzerland are relatively high… but we also have a system that performs well and people are generally happy with what they get out of it,” said Gaudenz Silberschmidt, head of international affairs at the Federal Health Office.

Sharing experience

But Silberschmidt told swissinfo that the Swiss delegation to the OECD conference was keen to learn how other countries are working to keep health costs in check.

“The main challenges are threefold: how to control costs, how to guarantee access to healthcare and how to ensure high quality. Countries usually have difficulty with [at least] one of these three,” said Silberschmidt.

“There are lessons to be learnt from different countries on these individual issues. For example, we can learn from Scandinavian countries about the way they control the quality of their [health care] systems,” he added.

Prevention campaigns

Health ministers also discussed how countries can reduce their medical bills by focusing more on health awareness campaigns.

The OECD argues that not enough is being invested in initiatives to cut tobacco and alcohol consumption and reverse the rise in obesity.

“You get a lot out of these sort of campaigns, but not immediately. It has to be a long-term effort,” said Silberschmidt.

Switzerland has for some time been facilitating closer cooperation in this field between the OECD and the Geneva-based World Health Organization.

“Both organisations are starting to work together to investigate how countries can make better use of preventive measures to reduce costs,” said Silberschmidt.

Global strategy

The OECD conference took place less than a week before the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, where the international community is expected to draw up a global strategy to combat obesity.

“Educating people about the importance of nutrition and physical exercise is something we need to improve,” said Silberschmidt.

To this end the Federal Health Office – in conjunction with the Federal Office for Sport – this week organised a series of activities aimed at encouraging Swiss people to take regular exercise.

But Silberschmidt admits that Switzerland lags behind some countries when it comes to another issue at the top of the global health agenda.

“If you take tobacco policy, some countries go much further than Switzerland. Ireland, for example, has just introduced a total ban on smoking in pubs.”

Except in canton Ticino, Swiss restaurants are not obliged by law to offer non-smoking tables or sections. About 30 per cent of the Swiss population smoke, one of the highest rates in Europe.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

In brief

This week’s OECD conference of health ministers was a parallel event to the organisation’s annual ministerial council meeting in the French capital, Paris.

The Swiss delegation to the health conference was led by the interior minister, Pascal Couchepin. The director of the Federal Health Office, Thomas Zeltner, also attended.

Delegates discussed how to reduce medical costs by focusing on health awareness campaigns.

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