As recently announced, EUREGHA is extremely pleased to welcome another new full member to our network: the Basque Country Department of Health.
In addition to our dedicated article, we spoke directly with Itziar Larizgoitia Jauregui, Director of Public Health and Marian Angeles Ibarrondo Unamunzaga, Director of Research and Innovation, for a brief welcome interview that you can find here below!
What are the main responsibilities of the Basque Government Department of Health, and what is your role there?
I am Director of Public Health and Marian is Director of Research and Innovation, but we represent the Department of Health of the Basque Region, which is a larger entity than our respective portfolios. Marian: We are one of the most autonomous regions in Spain. This means we collect our own taxes and develop our own policies, so our Department of Health has full competency in the provision of public health and healthcare services in the Basque Region. We have records of almost the whole population here, which is quite unique. We are very well connected with different departments and trying to build an ecosystem of public-private collaboration to work on social issues, sanitary conditions, ageing population, and others. We have different research institutes within the hospitals and we would like to foster collaborations with universities and the healthcare industry. We have 4 research institutes, one per territory.
How did you learn about EUREGHA & why did you decide to pursue membership?
It’s important for us to engage with other European regions. We have very good communication with the other Spanish regions and the Spanish Government in Madrid, but we are looking for cooperation with other European regions as well. That is how we found EUREGHA. We have a very active office in Brussels, staffed with 5-6 people that have always been mostly focused on industry and energy. Now we are looking forward to becoming more active in European health policies, together with the other regions EUREGHA is representing.
It is also important for our region to be part of a learning platform where we can exchange knowledge and learn of new developments in the health sector elsewhere in Europe. Many of the issues faced by regions are similar. Not being a Member State, we are far away from discussions taking place at the European Union. We learn from our central government in Madrid, but it is not the same as being able to discuss these developments with other regional actors. That was an important driver for us to join EUREGHA, to be part of a network and be able to learn by sharing regional issues and regional solutions.
What are your current health policy priorities at the Department of Health?
From my side, I’m in charge of research and innovation for the whole system, also for public health and we have been focused a lot on clinical research but we are moving our focus to other areas as well, such as the different partnerships that are being formed in Europe like the one on Transforming Health and Care Systems (THCS). We are also doing good work on personalized medicine, digital health, neuroscience, and mental health. Another issue we now want to focus on is disruptive technologies. We have one of the oldest populations in Europe and we have a working group with different departments led by the Basque president, discussing ageing not just from a health but also from a social and cultural perspective.
A new health plan has just been passed, a strategic plan setting priorities for the next 8 years. It is probably not very different from other regions in Europe, but we are highlighting an important focus on fostering the development of children and adolescents and supporting healthy ageing for the elderly population. In fact, ageing starts from when we are children, so we work on prevention and health promotion as well. For example, we want to appeal to cities to reorganize their urban planning accordingly, making spaces friendly to both young and elderly. We take a cross-cutting approach and aim to work with different sectors of government in addressing the entire society. That means improving the excellence of health care services, but we also want to promote healthy environments and dealing with climate change, transportation, and urban planning.
What is typical about your region?
I have had the pleasure of working here for 3 years now and I think there is quite a clear awareness in the different sectors of government and other provincial institutions around health and health improvement. There is a clear interest from environmental and urban sectors to contribute to health improvement, they feel proud to do this work.
The biggest budget of the Basque government is health, not only because we are a service provider but also because health is a clear priority from social, industrial, and even political perspective. I would say that indeed, this is quite unique. Even before COVID-19 came, health has been a priority in Basque Country. Itziar: Compared to Spain but also Europe in general, our life expectancy is among the longest in the world. Other indicators of quality of life and health are quite good as well. I think one of our goals as a society is to achieve the highest standards in health. Marian: From an innovation point of view, we can be considered a high innovation region and we are very industrialized. Our science and technology plan has three main pillars: industry, energy, and health.
What is the second half of 2023 going to look like for you?
We will attend the annual European Health Forum in Gastein with the Prime Minister of Health from the Basque Country, who will present a European project called JADECARE. It is a model of successful benchmarking in Europe with different policies we have here in Basque Country. And next year will be all about formulating new plans and new policies because we are nearing the end of our four-year Parliament cycle, meaning elections are coming.
We are also hoping to get a new public health law passed in the fall, hopefully it will pass by winter. That is what we are hoping for.