In summer 2014, the former Swedish Minister of Health Care and Social Security, Bo Könberg, submitted an independent report on ways to develop and strengthen Nordic cooperation on health over the next five to 10 years.

The conference included presentations and panel discussions that put the spotlight on three of the report’s 14 recommendations: 1) measures to combat increasing resistance to antibiotics, 2) strengthening Nordic research cooperation on data registers, and 3) highly specialised medical treatment across Nordic borders.

Well-known speakers

Other speakers in addition to Mr Könberg were Werner Christie, former Norwegian Minister of Health, and Camilla Stoltenberg, Director-General of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. The former Swedish Minister of Social Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, Bengt Westerberg, served as the moderator.

Eva Eriksson, the chair of Voksenåsen Hotel, welcomed more than 80 participants to the venue, which was Norway’s national gift to Sweden after World War II. She then turned the floor over to Mr Christie, who drew a line from the 2009 report by former Norwegian politician Thorvald Stoltenberg on Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation to Mr Könberg’s report. He emphasised the importance of recognising that even though the individual Nordic countries are small, they have the impact of a large European country when they collaborate.

The Könberg report

The man behind the report, Bo Könberg, gave a presentation on the report’s background and contents.

“The purpose of the report was to find out where we can realise stronger Nordic cooperation on health care. The 14 recommendations identify areas that I believe have great potential for improvement and where closer cooperation may lead to better, more effective health services, especially for people with rare medical conditions,” said Bo Könberg from the stage.

The Nordic welfare model

Mr Könberg was followed by Camilla Stoltenberg, who gave the participants insight into the Nordic population’s state of health.

“In general, the Nordic countries score the highest in the world on life satisfaction, wellbeing and happiness. Denmark usually scores at the top, which is often referred to as the ‘Danish effect’, and Norway follows in second place. This is seen, for example, in the World Happiness Report from 2013. In light of this, there seems to be a Nordic effect that probably is related – at least in part – to common aspects of the Nordic welfare model,” said Ms Stoltenberg.

The greatest health threat of our time

The first panel discussion of the day addressed the recommendation on combating resistance to antibiotics. Each year 25 000 people in Europe die because today’s antibiotics are ineffective, and Mr Könberg describes the problem as the greatest health threat of our time. The report recommends that the world’s richest countries allocate SEK 75 billion over five years to research on new antibiotics and that the Nordic countries contribute SEK 2.5 billion.

The panel participants agreed that the report’s recommendation was a step in the right direction. However, although SEK 75 billion is a huge sum, they believed that amount would probably need to be even higher.

“SEK 75 billion sounds like a lot, but in this context the amount is too low. We have a problem that will cause the deaths of millions of people if we don’t do something. We must pay and we must pay now,” said Mats Ulfendal of the Swedish Research Council and the Joint Committee of the Nordic Medical Research Councils (NOS-M), a co-organiser of the conference.

“In addition, closer cooperation between the public and private spheres is needed, and establishing a ‘public-private partnership’ will enable us to achieve faster, better results than if we wait until the countries take responsibility on their own,” said Professor John-Arne Røttingen, Director of the Division of Infectious Disease Control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

At the same time, the panel participants believed it would take a long time for the global community to reach consensus on how to tackle the problem and that many lives would be lost before then. The panel unanimously agreed that it would be impossible for individual countries to solve the problem alone and that the Nordic region should therefore assume a leadership role in the effort to combat resistance to antibiotics.

The panel participants offered other important input as well.

“Although the fight against antibiotic resistance is one of the great challenges of our time, it is nevertheless even more important to ensure that effective antibiotics are available to everyone. This is far from the case today,” said Mr Røttingen.

Nordic goldmine

The fourth recommendation in Mr Könberg’s report deals with registry-based research and proposes strengthening Nordic research cooperation on data registries, biobanks and clinical studies.

The panel participants agreed that the Nordic registries are a goldmine for the Nordic region and that measures to strengthen cooperation in this area will enhance the Nordic countries’ position as an attractive region for research, which in turn will provide quicker access to new medications and treatment methods.

According to the panel, it is important to develop measures that can dismantle the technical, legal and ethical barriers associated with data sharing across national borders, as the Nordic registries have a growing number of competitors, albeit not of equally high quality, both in the US and in other highly populated areas.

“The need for knowledge and information is greater than ever. We need to clarify how we can work together to produce knowledge more quickly since the need for information is obviously great when an outbreak of a serious disease occurs. If we have access to a larger sample, we can get correct answers more easily and at the same time provide Nordic politicians with a better knowledge base,” said Ms Stoltenberg.

The road ahead

The conference concluded with a third panel discussion about the advantages of highly specialised medical treatments in the Nordic countries and a discussion between moderator Bengt Westerberg and Nordic politicians about the road ahead.

A key point which emerged was that there is significant potential inherent in cooperation on rare diseases, especially related to uncommon cancer diagnoses in which research may benefit from patients’ participation in clinical trials being conducted in other Nordic countries.

The conference was organised by NordForsk together with Voksenåsen Hotel, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Joint Committee of the Nordic Medical Research Councils (NOS-M)and the Swedish Embassy in Oslo.

Text: Tor Martin Nilsen/NordForsk

This article was originally published at in February 2015.