An interview with Dr Mira Jovanovski Dasic, Head of the South-eastern Europe Health Network (SEEHN) Secretariat

What role can EU health policies play in strengthening the ties between countries in the SEE and the EU?

EU health policies can play a multifaceted role in strengthening the ties between South-Eastern European (SEE) countries and the European Union (EU).

Firstly, these policies can establish a framework for harmonising healthcare standards and regulations across SEE countries, bringing them into closer alignment with EU standards. This not only improves the quality and safety of healthcare services but also facilitates cross-border healthcare access for citizens.

Secondly, EU health policies can act as a catalyst for knowledge exchange and the sharing of best practices. Initiatives such as collaborative research projects and information sharing enable SEE countries to gain insights from the experiences of EU Member States in healthcare management, disease prevention, and public health strategies. This exchange of knowledge can lead to more effective healthcare systems and policies in SEE. We are actively fostering this collaboration with Romania and Bulgaria, both members of the SEEHN. These countries, along with others, aspire to join the EU family in near future.

Thirdly, EU health policies for the SEE region often prioritise health security and preparedness for public health emergencies. Collaborative efforts on issues such as pandemic preparedness, vaccine distribution, and healthcare infrastructure development empower SEE countries to strengthen their collective response to health crises. This collaboration not only enhances healthcare resilience but also fosters a sense of solidarity and mutual support among countries in the region.

In summary, EU health policies offer SEE countries a framework to align their healthcare systems with EU standards, promote knowledge exchange and best practices, and enhance collective health security. These efforts can foster closer ties between SEE countries and the EU, promoting regional integration and cooperation across healthcare and beyond.

Why is a network such as the SEEHN important in supporting countries to improve the health and resilience of their populations?

The SEEHN plays a crucial role in supporting Member States to improve the health and resilience of their populations in several ways:

  • Knowledge exchange and sharing best practices: The SEEHN provides a platform for member countries to share their experiences, successes, and challenges in areas such as mental health and vaccine inequalities. This exchange of knowledge allows Member States to learn from each other’s strategies and best practices, accelerating the adoption of effective health promotion and disease prevention measures.
  • Resource mobilisation: The SEEHN can facilitate the pooling of resources, expertise, and funding opportunities. This collaborative approach can help member countries access resources they might not have individually, enabling them to implement more comprehensive and sustainable health programmes.
  • Advocacy and policy development: The SEEHN often engages in collective advocacy efforts to promote policies and initiatives that address common health issues. This united front enables Member States to influence regional and international bodies for  improved policies and resources in health promotion and disease prevention.
  • Technical assistance and capacity building: The SEEHN offers technical assistance and capacity-building programmes, assisting member countries to strengthen their healthcare systems, workforce, and infrastructure. This support is essential for implementing effective health promotion and prevention strategies.
  • Data sharing and monitoring: The SEEHN facilitates data sharing and joint monitoring of health indicators, enabling Member States to track progress, identify disparities, and continuously adjust strategies to improve health outcomes.
  • Crisis preparedness and response: The SEEHN enhances collective resilience by coordinating preparedness and response efforts during health crises, including pandemics.
  • Cross-border collaboration: In the context of the SEEHN, which includes countries in SEE, cross-border collaboration is particularly important. The SEEHN fosters regional cooperation, vital for addressing health challenges that transcend national borders, such as infectious diseases and environmental health issues.

In conclusion, networks like the SEEHN play a vital role in supporting countries to improve the health and resilience of their populations by facilitating knowledge exchange, resource mobilisation, advocacy, technical assistance, and data sharing. Beyond addressing health challenges, the SEEHN serves as a peacebuilding platform at heart, promoting cross-country collaborations in a region still recovering from past conflicts.

Could you give an example of a project or programme supported or promoted by the SEEHN or one of your members that has advanced mental health and/or vaccine uptake in the population?

The SEEHN has set up a Regional Health Development Centre (RHDC) on mental health, hosted by Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mental health is a top priority for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the current rotating presidency of the network.

In response to mental health challenges during the pandemic, the SEEHN implemented the “Mental Health and Resilience Training for Healthcare Workers responding to COVID-19 in SEE Region”, funded by Project HOPE. Approximately 8000 healthcare workers were trained on stress, trauma, and resilience concepts, providing a regional emergency response to combat healthcare worker burnout.

Additionally, the SEEHN conducted a study “Rapid Mapping Out of the Current Situation in the Area of Mental Health in the SEE Region 2000-2022: Towards Better Mental Health and Well-Being”. The study revealed:

  • SEE countries are home to almost 70 million people.
  • They face multifaceted challenges, including demographic decline, economic disparities, reliance on limited financing sources, and gaps in mental healthcare provision.
  • Developments over the past 20 years have focused on community-based practices, accreditation, standardisation of legislation and practices, and greater involvement of service users.
  • Future efforts should prioritise investments in capacity building, ensure quality assurance and monitoring, improve routine data collection, and harmonise legislation with international standards.

In the short-term, the SEEHN has also developed flyers for healthcare workers translated into Albanian, Macedonian, and English.

Regarding vaccine uptake, through our RHDC on Communicable Diseases, hosted by Albania, the SEEHN, has worked to enhance vaccination rates and improve accessibility and availability of vaccines for the SEEHN Member States markets. During the COVID-19 period, the SEEHN Secretariat, in collaboration with our RHDC, conducted webinars to promote vaccination and improve vaccination rates. Moreover, the SEEHN, Project HOPE, and the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at the Watson Institute of Brown University, organised the COVID-19 vaccine-training programme for frontline responders in 2021. The training gathered over 150 frontline workers from the SEEHN Member States, providing a platform to discuss the latest science behind different, concerns and answers, vaccine rollout communications, prioritisation systems, and country specific guidelines. The training was expanded to reach over 1200 participants in the respective SEEHN Member States.

If you had unlimited funding to address one priority of your network, what would you choose to invest in and why?

One important area that could significantly benefit from increased funding is human capital, specifically in capacity building and the healthcare infrastructure to support it. This would involve investing in health workforce, strengthening it through training, recruitment, and retention of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, technicians, and other essential staff. Adequate staffing is critical for providing quality care and addressing shortages in healthcare.

Interview conducted by Anne-Sophie Travert, Global Health Policy Advisor, French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Lina Papartyte, Project Coordinator, EuroHealthNet, at the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) 2023.

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