From our own correspondent: Guest blog #1

The annual Gastein Forum meeting in the exclusive skiing resort and spa of Bad Hofgastein, about an hour and a half’s drive due south of Salzburg, is European Health’s little sibling to the financiers’ World Economic Forum in Davos.

This week we publish our choice of event highlights from the 2013 meeting which took place in the first week of October. We hope that it provides a useful snapshot of selected current health policy trends. Therefore as my first assignment as Guest blogger for the EHFF site, I thought I’d give you my personal impressions in a truly old-fashioned way – a word picture.

On the first evening I collected my badge and papers from the Conference Centre, manned by keen young persons who seemed admirably efficient (and were still on duty at 8pm when my group arrived on the Conference transport from Salzburg airport). All the hotels are more or less walking distance from the Conference Centre, so I quickly checked in and then looked for somewhere to eat that wasn’t too ‘touristy’. With a bit of luck I soon found a small bar-restaurant which seemed to be more a haunt of locals and certainly didn’t seem to have attracted any conference badge wearers.

It was all very cosy, sedate and, well, Austrian. Alpine furniture, low lighting although no stags or boars heads on the walls. Even the friendly waitress hardly spoke English but I was quickly able to acquire local food and wine. In the bar people chatted and played cards. It was a comfortable way to recover from what had been for me a fifteen hour journey, door to door, and I reflected on the up-coming conference programme over a schnapps and an espresso. Relative peace and quiet.

In contrast, at the hotel breakfast, there was a sea of chattering grey heads and blue rinses. This was the spa set, average age perhaps 75, the other main business of the town apart from conferences, prior to the winter months. Those minority of us wearing conference badges were shunted off into a side area, as the less important guests. Quite right too. It’s the first time I’ve seen a hand-operated slicer for the Austrian equivalent of prosciutto used at breakfast. Its popularity suggested that, given this was a spa hotel, good health has many faces here.

On to the conference and an earnest morning discussing the outcome of the DAWN2 (Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes and Needs) project in a parallel session on barriers to chronic disease management. It seemed that most sessions outside of the main plenaries were sponsored by a different commercial stakeholder, mostly Pharma, but that didn’t seem to devalue the content of the sessions. I don’t make a habit of going to Gastein, but it is ten years now since I first went, giving a small paper on behalf of a UK patient safety organisation. So it was inevitable that I knew a few of the faces in the room and one of the most satisfying aspects of the overall experience for me was catching up with old friends.

A highly entertaining end to the first major plenary in the afternoon. Prof Reinhardt from Princeton as the keynote speaker with ‘bailing out healthcare with innovation’ gave what felt like an after-dinner speech (with lots of slides). Having identified all the problems no-one seems able to solve, his parting shot was – ‘What is needed most urgently now is innovation in the administration of health care and in its industrial (organizational) processes. This is the homework assignment for the younger people in this audience’.

At the evening buffet reception another facet of the conference was more evident, the presence of (relative) youngsters. These were in part the Young Gasteiners, sponsored (see the main report) to the extent of making up maybe one in ten of the company. Their vitality and flirtatiousness helped lift what might otherwise have been a rather staid gathering of world weary professionals. Their presence also illustrated one positive aspect of this event, that there really was the opportunity for rubbing shoulders with and chatting informally to very senior staff concerned with health policy in the Commission.

The sessions rolled on: I attended, bleary-eyed, a 7.30 am session reporting an FP7 (DG Research) project on hospital outcomes. 20 or so other misguided or very committed persons had tumbled out of bed to attend this breakfast session which involved a lot of indigestible statistics! If you were so minded you could go on to attend wall-to-wall sessions until 8pm. Needless to say yours truly opted for a couple of ‘café meetings’ during the course of the day, networking with colleagues and old friends in information exchange at least as valuable as the content of the formal sessions.

At the end of the day, what can you say about conference dinners? There’s no way to make such experiences pleasurable, other than the happy accident of sitting next to some people you enjoy talking to. In fact similar events two evenings running starts to feel like a sort of punishment or endurance test.

On to another day, much like the previous, other than the delightful early autumn sunshine was finally replaced by continuous rain. Again, attending as an observer a session with the Young Gasteiners talking enthusiastically about how they wanted to use the experience of the conference and the exchange of ideas they’d had was a tonic for a jaded palate. EHFG had organised a ‘Dragon’s Den’ event at the end of the day for the group to present innovation ideas to a senior panel. But I had a plane to catch.

One final reflection. Someone commented on the clear mountain air making it easier to think. I reflected on the irony of discussing increasing health inequalities in a setting where there was not one beggar or homeless person to be seen (compare the streets of Vienna). It’s a question of balance. The policy development environment inevitably attracts a potential criticism about people living in ivory towers, insulated from the harsh reality of street life. It’s a challenge to all of us to try and maintain our sense of reality and compassion for the human condition when dealing with the kind of ‘big questions’ that Prof Reinhardt helpfully summarised. We all know we need a new paradigm, but how on earth do we make it happen?

With each blog I’ll profile a Futures organisation that we aim to partner with. Mike Jackson (a member of the EHFF Community) runs Shaping Tomorrow. In his words, ‘we help 20,000 members and 7,000 organisations to master systematic, continuous ideation, competitive intelligence, strategic thinking, forecasting, collaborative innovation, fast solution finding, scenario planning, risk & change management to make better decisions today’.

EHFF, in collaboration with ShapingTomorrow, will soon publish a weekly scan of selected health futures developments.

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