DG SANCO announced that it is going to host a summit in Brussels this April to debate innovative solutions to the growing burden of chronic diseases on the health care systems and the economy. Surprisingly enough, musculoskeletal disorders are not on their agenda. A door slammed in the face of 100 million European citizens suffering from musculoskeletal pain – one might say. To give you an idea of the dimensions of the problem, this figure is comparable with the aggregated population of Belgium, Germany and Austria. Actually, in excess of 40 million people are of working-age and have an MSD cause by their work. To make things worse, evidence-based studies conducted within Fit for Work Europe, through The Work Foundation, and elsewhere by organisations such as Eumusc.net and even the European Commission, show that the EU economy loses €240bn to MSD annually. MSD is also the leading cause of sickness absence in the EU, accounting for half of all absences from work lasting three days or longer and 60% of permanent job loss.
Yet the European institutions seem to have turned a blind eye to MSDs. Neither the European Commission, nor the World Health Organisation classifies MSDs as serious non-communicable diseases. Why is that? One can speculate that MSDs, unlike cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, are not considered to be a major cause of death. It is a fact, though, that MSDs can seriously contribute to the increase of mortality rates. People living with an MSD incur the risk of developing other conditions such as mental health problems – 30% of people with MSDs also have depression – obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
Allegedly, policy-makers have given little priority to MSDs because of insufficient cross-country data. One might argue that most people with MSDs are treated in outpatient settings and that most health information systems are rather designed to provide data about inpatient care. It could also be claimed that MSD diagnoses are recorded differently in various member states, which makes it difficult to draw comparable conclusions. However, in recent years considerable progress has been made in capturing and processing comprehensive data related to MSDs. To name just a few sources, the Global Burden of Diseases and Eumusc.net have released hefty reports on the societal and economic impact of MSDs.
In addition, Fit for Work Europe has been working for five years now to promote the prioritisation of MSDs amongst the most harmful non-communicable diseases and the implementation of healthcare and workplace interventions that support job retention and return to work for people living with MSDs. With an evidence base of over 30 studies conducted in Europe, Fit for Work is currently testing practical solutions to MSDs in several members states (Spain, the UK, Latvia, Portugal, Lithuania).
The first results of the Early Intervention pilot that ran in Spain clearly indicates that an earlier, more sustained recovery for working age citizens suffering from MSDs can highly contribute towards increased cost savings for the economy, easing the strain on the health care systems and increasing the labour market participation. As featured in the Parliament Magazine (p. 27), the Spanish pilot showed a 50% reduction in permanent work disability (people leaving work completely), a 39% decrease in temporary work disability (people having sick days from work as a result of their condition) and a 40% reduction in sanitary costs. In addition, it highly increased patient satisfaction, whilst the cost-benefit analysis revealed a two-year return of more than €10 for each €1 invested in the programme.
Fit for Work summons DG SANCO not to be oblivious to an innovative solution like Early Intervention, which could benefit not only the Europeans living with MSDs, but also people with other chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and mental health disorders.
>>> Check independent expert opinions about MSDs and Early Intervention featured in a video from the Fit for Work 2013 Summit