Health economics: A counterbalance to economic policy?

Interview with Professor Jürgen Wasem, Chair of Medical Management, Department of Economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen

Health economics is always expanding and is, therefore, one of the main pillars of the overall Germany economy. This results in a variety of economic, social and technical challenges that need to be overcome. Oftentimes however, the focus here is on sales and profit over the benefits of patients.


Photo: Jürgen Wasem

Jürgen Wasem ;© UDE/Frank Preuß spoke with Professor Jürgen Wasem, Chair of Medical Management, Department of Economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, about the future of health economics and the relevance of a medical technology industry that is focused on the patient.

Professor Wasem, what challenges arise from social developments within health economics?

Prof. Jürgen Wasem: The central social development that will shape health economics is clearly the demographic change. The recent 13th coordinated population projection presented by the German Federal Statistical Office (German: Statistisches Bundesamt) once again made this clear: the old-age dependency ratio that today is at approximately one-third, will increase to half within the next 20 years. This has considerable implications for the health care needs. Health economics needs to respond to this.

How can the health care system meet this challenge and what technical developments can help in this case?

Wasem: I believe health economics is already aware of this for the most part because this also provides a great opportunity, of course. Something that’s often still not taken into account enough is the multimorbidity in many patients. Especially in the area of therapy, we need solutions that focus on this.
Photo: Women in a company with gown and cover on the head

Health economics has to focus more and more on patient-relevant innovations; ©

Health economics has increasingly garnered the attention of economic policy over the past few years. Where does this actually leave the patient?

Wasem: I see the fact that economic policy has discovered health economics primarily as an opportunity. After all, the focus of politics until then was often exclusively on cost reduction and curbing health care spending. This is why a counterbalance to economic policy is essential. But you are correct: neither cost cutters nor economists are primarily interested in the patient. To a certain degree, this also applies to the health care industry, of course, whose primary interest is naturally geared towards sales and profits. This is why health care policy needs to ensure that innovations that benefit patients also become interesting for health economics.

Can current reforms actually ensure the funding of the health care system?

Wasem: The "profitability imperative" in statutory health insurance in Germany celebrated its 100th-anniversary last year. To that extent, striking a balance between what’s medically desirable and what’s financially feasible has long been a permanent challenge for the health care system. I think one thing is clear: due to the obvious aging trend of the population, the need for health resources has increased disproportionately. We won’t be able to ensure funding with "stable health insurance premiums".
Photo: stethoscope lying on a health-insurance card

Statutory health insurance ("Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung") in Germany will more than before pay for products and services that have a patient-relevant additional benefit; © Reitz-Hofmann

The need for addressing concerns at the interface between economics and medicine grows more and more. Which trained experts imperatively need to prepare for future challenges?

Wasem: That’s a good point. My impression is that the scientists in pharmaceutical companies and the engineers at medical device manufacturers have the biggest need to catch up. Both still rely too much on assuming that technically sophisticated factors will also triumph in a social health insurance system. Yet this is not the case: even more so than before, the health care systems, meaning the statutory health insurance ("Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung"), GKV in Germany for example will only be prepared to pay for those products and services that show a patient-relevant benefit at a reasonable additional charge compared to previously existing solutions. This also applies to health care systems in other countries.

Where does health economics in Germany rank compared to other European countries?

Wasem: The German medical technology industry is still in an excellent position by international standards. We feature a wide range of providers and products. The big challenge here is to meet the increasing demands for providing proof of patient-relevant benefits in the future.

Foto: Melanie Günther; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Melanie Günther and translated by Elena O'Meara.
Foto: Melanie Günther; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Melanie Günther and translated by Elena O'Meara.