The Minister for Prevention can do more!

3 min reading time

Dutch newspaper Het Parool reported Alderman Eric van der Burg as saying that the Netherlands would be healthier if there were a Minister for Prevention to focus on preventing chronic diseases. This is quite right, in my view, as we have long known that many diseases are largely caused by people’s lifestyle and everyday surroundings. So if we, here in the Netherlands, are really serious about prevention then people will need to make healthy choices in surroundings that give them the maximum amount of support. But, the new minister can do more!

At the moment, preventing people from becoming ill is not, in fact, the only issue that requires attention. This is because there are already a very large number of people suffering from chronic illnesses. In the current healthcare system, once people become patients, they remain patients. Yet studies have shown that many of these people neither have to be – nor remain – ‘patients’. Our understanding of how people’s lifestyles and everyday surroundings give rise to various chronic diseases, and about how this process might be reversed, is improving all the time. In a significant proportion of people with type 2 diabetes, for instance, their disease can be reversed by lifestyle changes. Isn’t it great that while we are working on prevention we can also cure type 2 diabetes in the Netherlands?

“We must work with current and new stakeholders to create an economy where it pays to invest in prevention and health”

Investing in prevention and health

As with prevention, people’s lifestyle and their everyday surroundings are both key to reversing a disease like type 2 diabetes. If someone who is currently suffering from type 2 diabetes, or who has only just been diagnosed with this disease, adopts a healthier lifestyle, then they will need to use little or no medication. On their own, however, people seem to be unable to make these changes and to stay the course. So reversing type 2 diabetes calls for a different approach. In today’s economy there are parties for whom disease is a source of income, while people’s surroundings seduce them into making unhealthy choices. This is reflected by financial incentives in the healthcare system and in the food and pharmaceutical industries, and in the way that work, neighbourhoods, shops and schools are organized. If we want to cure type 2 diabetes then we must do everything in our power to ensure that people with this disease start leading healthier lives right now, and that they continue to do so. This will mean working with current and new stakeholders to create an economy where it pays to invest in prevention and health. We must experiment with interventions that involve the use of lifestyle as a medicine.

Everything needed to turn the tide

Throughout the world, the number of people with type 2 diabetes is growing. It seems to strike countries like a never-ending flood. In years gone by, the Netherlands demonstrated to its own people and to the world at large that it has what it takes to turn the tide. Through innovations and hard work in the polders (low-lying, reclaimed land), the Netherlands managed to keep its people high and dry. Now we can turn the rising tide of type 2 diabetes in the Netherlands. This will involve harnessing the available knowledge and expertise on lifestyle interventions and on healthy everyday surroundings in the country’s polders. The new minister can and must do this. After all, we have everything that we need – one of the best healthcare systems in the world, resourceful scientists who understand what needs to be done, an innovative economy, and numerous local projects that prove it can be done. We also have an innovative business community, from supermarkets to horticulturists and from the IT sector to the pharmaceutical industry. And of course we must remember all those employers who are willing to go out of their way to ensure the wellness of their employees, chronically ill or not.

“‘Ridding the Netherlands of type 2 diabetes’ demands courage and boldness from the new minister”

A single national agenda

Yet ridding the Netherlands of type 2 diabetes demands courage and boldness from the new minister. He or she must draw up a single national agenda and get every stakeholder in this complex system to sign up, in order to change the system together. This signature is not just an empty gesture, it marks a resolve to make the change and to achieve solid results. The Netherlands – a type 2 diabetes-free country, if ever there was a result worth signing up for, this is it! And I trust that we will soon be able to welcome the new Minister for Prevention, someone who will resolutely sign up and make their mark.

Author

Hanneke Molema is a health scientist at TNO.

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