Health journalists: go to Gastein – by Senne Starckx

From Wesndesday 3rd October until Saturday 6th Ocotber; fifteen EUSJA journalists attended the European Health Forum Gastein 2012.

Fifteen EUSJA-journalists took the opportunity this year to swap their busy working habitat for the peaceful and quiet Gastein valley, a beautiful setting amidst the majestic Austrian Alps. It’s the kind of place that invites you to take a cure and relax, however, we didn’t have quiet time for that. Four days long, we attended lectures and debates covering the big challenges that European health policy face today. Apart from a very inspiring conference, the European Health Forum Gastein is a unique networking opportunity for health journalists.

One of the big questions that politicians and policymakers in the European Union face today is how they have to deal with a rapidly aging population. In fact, as demographics has an unstoppable momentum, the question is not how to ‘stop’ aging, but how to create the best limiting conditions for ‘healthy aging’. How can we adapt our – often celebrated – health security systems to the needs of a demographic pyramid that is turned upside down?


If you’re looking for a place where you can spend you elder days in a healthy and highly relaxing way, the two Austrian towns Hofgastein and Gastein are just perfect. It’s all peace and quietness here, with a lot of clean air, sunshine (also in October the weather can be quite warm) and neatness (call it österreichischer Gründlichkeit). In fact, these towns gave me the impression of a giant retirement home – that is, with the highest level of comfort and luxury.


Since fifteen years, the Gastein valley hosts the yearly European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), a large and quite prestigious event that is high on the agenda of every health policymaker in the EU. Actually, the Forum serves as a meeting place for health experts from quite different backgrounds – the differences between the health security systems of the EU member states are still huge.


The atmosphere during the Forum is quite open. As a critical health journalist, you know you don’t like to find posters of’ ‘big pharma’ everywhere in the conference venue, nor do you like to receive dozens of leaflets that recommend newly developed medicines. Nothing like that in Gastein, where the registration lobby is only brightened up with some posters that tell about recent research on health issues. The organizers of the Forum choose consistently not to play the big pharma card – which distinguishes the Forum from many other similar health events. When a speaker, for example, is in some way connected with industry (for project funding), he has to mention this at the beginning of the session.

The program of this 15th edition of the Forum was inspired by the current economic and budgetary crisis in the EU. The credo ‘Health in an Age of Austerity’ brought questions together like ‘How can we keep the national health security systems in the EU affordable?’, ‘How do we incorporate new technologies – like social media – in these systems?’, and ‘How can we improve communication about diseases?’. Of course, at the final day of the Forum (Saturday 6th October) these questions didn’t get a univocal answer. But, in fact, some new ideas popped up during the lectures and debates that will undoubtedly grow into new elements of the health security systems of the 21th century. Like the proposal, for example, of the Estonian President (!) who was heavily advocating in Gastein for e-health. E-health is all about integrating simple health applications and tests into smart phones and social media. For example, instead of going to the hospital, you can measure your blood pressure yourself and receive comments of an ‘e-doctor’ – without any cost for you or society.


For us, journalists, these sessions were certainly inspiring, but they didn’t yield us big news stories. However, that’s not what makes the Forum such an interesting event. It’s the opportunity to network with so many leading health experts that makes this event quite unique. And, according to my experience, most of these experts were eager to talk with journalists – another difference with events sponsored by industry.


I don’t think there’s another event in Europe that brings so many interesting people, concerning health issues, together. And thanks to a newly initiated commitment with the newly elected President of the Forum with, Professor Helmut Brand, we journalists are welcome to come back next year and attend the EHFG 2013. And, as Prof. Brand mentioned explicitly during a conversation of the EUSJA delegation this year, we are kindly requested to bring our nasty questions with us.