Stefan Gijssels on cancer treatment: 'Prevention is not on a high level in any EU country, we need to learn from each other and adopt best practices'


  • Karla Juničić


Stefan Gijssels, Executive Director of Digestive Cancers Europe

'The Current state of the healthcare environment in the EU is fragmented and many people die needlessly because only this few countries have adopted the right measures' says Stefan Gijssels, Executive Director of Digestive Cancers Europe in an interview for Euractiv.

Stefan Gijssels who participated at the international meeting held in Zagreb - 'Solution-Focused Cancer Care in Central & Southeastern Europe' believes that there are very big difference in cancer treatment between European countries and warns a bigger political will is needed to tackle the incidence of cancer.

- Most people are still treated in facilities and hospitals that do not have enough expertise and experience to do what they are doing – he said proposing a solution that less cancer treatment center are needed but with more expertise.

Being himself a colon cancer survival he realized the importance of patient's organization to influence decision making of the government regarding cancer treatment. Consequently, being treated in the specialized center of Leuven where 85% of patients survive he pointed the importance of sharing knowledge to the cancer center who perform worse.

His organization Digestive Cancers Europe wants to contribute to early diagnosis and decreased mortality from digestive cancers and to an increase of overall survival and quality of life.

- I represent patients with all digestive cancers. Colorectal is one of the most significant in Europe, and today we have 800.000 patients diagnosed every year of which 500.000 die in Europe every year. That's a lot of people that are affected by disease.

Countries like Slovenia, Ireland and Netherlands are leading in the prevention of colorectal cancer because they have managed, thanks to population-based screening programmes to diagnose 50% of patients in the early stage (instead of 15%) when chances of survival are 'much higher' and 'costs of treatment lower'. A lot of lives and money can be saved by applying this best practice.

- Primary prevention and health promotion are not standing good in any country – said Gijssels. The solution can be found in limiting the cancer treatment centers, meaning 'less centers but more specialized with experts dedicated treating patients with only one type of cancer'. The mortality is ten to twenty times higher in a non-specialized hospitals.

- You don't go to the center where generally one doctor had only few treatments a year or one who treated less than 100 patients in certain hospital. It reflects its lack of expertise and chances of survival are lower.

According to Gijssels, more government budget should be invested in healthcare.  Some European countries like Germany who invests 20% of government budget for healthcare is achieving better results in the cancer treatment, comparing to Latvia who has the lowest budget with 10% invested in healthcare.

Colorectal cancer screening status in Europe

On the other hand, EU masterplan to fight cancer is needed to better implement measures in different countries and achieve positive outcomes. To be abled to do that an 'overlook at the countries that are achieving the best results is needed' - mentioning here Belgium or Switzerland who have the highest survival rate of cancer patients.

- We have to look back and say: 'what can we learn from one that have success' instead of building everything from scratch – said Gijssels considering that all countries and system should adopt best practices.

He believes it is very positive that the new European Commission has put cancer prevention and treatment on top of their priorities. Still, he points that more than 300 billion of euros is wasted each year in healthcare system because of wrong treatments, misdiagnosed diseases, lack of adherence by patients, over consumption of pharmaceuticals etc.

- Our system is organised by the performer of the service, so you have the hospital the oncologist, the doctors, the nurses, pharma companies. Every year they say i need more money, because of various reasons. And the doctors say the same, and hospitals say the same but there is nobody who thinks in a linear way, looking at the entire patient journey for the disease:  'Where can we speed up diagnosis, what can we do to the efficiency in the treatment, how can we afford less effective treatments' – said Gijssels. In that matter patient organizations can help think how do we make service more efficient and effective.

To improve cancer treatment it is important to develop better communication between all member states, 'learn from each other improve the situation, and adapt best practices'.

-  If you do that in a very cohesive and coherent way a lot of lives and money can be saved. And if you don't apply the best practices, you better stop what you are doing and organize. - Gijssels concluded bravely pointing out that politicians are the one to show that cancer prevention in EU is seriously their 'part of interest' and not just a 'promise'.