The ambitious goals of Europe’s Beating Cancer will be out of reach unless priority is given to collecting the data needed to get a more accurate picture of inequalities in cancer care, a health economist says.

EU action against cancer has always been high on the agenda of Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission. More recently, the EU executive proposed a revision of the 2003 Council Recommendation on cancer screening as part of the European Beating Cancer Plan, also known as the European Beating Cancer Plan.

An important part of the plan is also to address inequities in cancer detection and care. However, for Thomas Hofmarcher, health economist at the Swedish Institute of Health Economics (IHE), there is a lack of adequate data to know the real gaps in access to health.

“We need this correct overview and we also need to follow the evolution over time,” Hofmarcher told EURACTIV, referring to cancer initiatives that will take place over several years.

“We want to be able to track things over time. This is why it is important to invest in data collection now and to repeat this exercise every year,” he said.

Having data on the true nature of inequalities is so crucial that Hofmarcher said it was “not possible” to properly implement the goals of the cancer plan without the data.

One of the goals is that 90% of all people in the target group for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening actually receive it. “There is currently no way to measure this,” Hofmarcher warned.

“I think when we set concrete indicators – and I think we should set concrete indicators and concrete targets – we can only do that when we know we have the data to measure it. no sense,” he said.

There have been attempts to map inequalities, such as the European Commission’s “European Cancer Inequality Register”, but according to Hofmarcher, there are still many gaps to be filled in data collection.

One tool that could be useful is the so-called European Cancer Pulse, which is due to be launched by the European Cancer Organization in November. Even though they say they will “highlight a range of additional cancer inequalities” to complete the Commission’s register, we are still a long way from having the full picture.

Another thing that could possibly help is the European Health Data Area (EHDS), but the Commission’s proposal is still being digested and it’s too early to say how and to what extent it will help.

Commission proposes updated recommendations on cancer screening

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides on Tuesday (20 September) presented a proposal to update the two-decade-old EU Council Recommendation on cancer screening, with the aim of including more types cancer in national screening programs.

If cancer was like COVID-19

What is difficult in terms of data collection is the lack of a common source of data on the different dimensions of cancer: prevention, early detection, treatment and survival.

“You really have to bring together different pieces from different sources,” Hofmarcher said, citing sources like Eurostat, the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that if prioritized, countries could suddenly collect a lot of data. Cancer killed 1.3 million EU citizens in 2020, the Commission pointed out in its communications on the subject. This is almost three times more than the number of people who died from COVID-19 in the same year.

“[With COVID] we didn’t know what was going to happen at first and just wanted to make sure we were tracking diagnosis, deaths and, later, vaccination rates. All of our societies were focused on COVID, not just politicians – everyone was united behind the fight against COVID,” Hofmarcher said, but added:

“We don’t have that for other common diseases, like cancer or cardiovascular disease, which have been around forever. So because of this crisis, we were able to get by with COVID. But we should start doing it for other diseases as well.

EU cancer plan ushers in ‘new era’ for preventing and fighting cancer

Health sector stakeholders have widely hailed the long-awaited European Cancer Plan, unveiled on Wednesday 3 January, as a “new era for cancer care and cancer patients”, which places the European Union at the forefront of research and innovation efforts.

[Edited by Gerardo FortunaZoran Radosavljevic]