Impact success story: Health economics

There were years when Lieven Annemans gave a lecture somewhere every week to talk about what a good health system should look like. He did this for professionals in the sector as well as for lay people. He also addresses a diverse audience with his books. In recent years he has focused more on research on happiness.

Foto dokterAs a health economist, it’s essential not to just stay in your office, says Professor Lieven Annemans. Doing research to have as many publications in your name as possible and to feed your CV doesn’t mean much to him anymore. Then what? Facilitating and ensuring that the health system is high-quality, sustainable and based on solidarity. Being high-quality means that it offers good quality healthcare to people. Solidarity means that every person who has a health problem is entitled to good care and sustainably means that the resources are well spent, that there is no waste.

Equal access to healthcare

How does his own research work towards a better world? One of the topics that the professor and his group work on is equal access to healthcare: “It’s about the principle that two people with the same health problem deserve the same quality of care: whether they’re rich or poor, more or less educated should all make no difference. Unfortunately we see that this is not the case today, that many people postpone or even cancel important care because they cannot afford it, because it has to come out of their own pocket.”

That means that we have to look at how we can build a health system based on solidarity, where everyone gets the quality of care that he or she needs.

To convince policymakers of this, Lieven Annemans ensures that his reports end up on their desk. “But there, too, the art is not to come up with a 150-page report full of technical terms. Already in the management summary you need to articulate what it’s about and where change is needed. That has a much greater impact than a comprehensive report that few people read.”

In recent years, this social aspect has increasingly fascinated him. “A long time ago I was mainly concerned with making complicated calculations, but for the last ten years I’ve been trying to get more involved to ensure that we make better decisions as a society.”

Happiness research

“Originally my ambition was to make the health system better, but more recently I’ve also been trying to widen the scope of my investigations to society and how we can live together so that more people feel happy. There are different approaches to do this. Some say: ‘You have to reach the one percent in charge and then things will change.’ I don’t think this is the right strategy. I think you have to get through to the people dealing with concerns and each other every day. So, in other words, I still think it’s best to communicate in the broadest possible way. In this way you indirectly reach the policymakers and gradually change things by letting your ideas seep in. Of course, it’s again a matter of convincing people that this is also best for them even though it’s not always obvious.”

With the NN Endowed Chair on ‘Perspectives for a healthy and happy life’, Lieven Annemans went looking for what makes Belgians happy: “Over the past two years, the theme of happiness has been taken more and more seriously by more and more people.” The main conclusions of the study: happiness can indeed be achieved (Lieven Annemans reaches a 60% mark, more than was shown in other studies) and it became clear from the analyses that the responsibility for this is shared by the people themselves and policy.

Professor Annemans calls himself optimistic by nature. “Compared to the world of a hundred years ago, today’s world is a better place. If you look at the objective figures, which is called quality of life, meaning all the factors needed to create a decent life for as many people as possible, you see that things are evolving positively. So it’s still worthwhile to continue working.” Yet he sometimes wanted to go faster. “It’s a kind of Hopping Procession of Echternach: two steps forward and one backward. The evolution is much slower than I had originally hoped, but the Hopping Procession of Echternach also finishes before dark. Thus, we continue to forge ahead, slowly but steadily.”

More information

Research group Health economics