An ailing medical technology sector: The European Union must take action, says the EESC

Transformation process requires European-wide cooperation

The European institutions must spearhead the optimizing of Europe's medical technology industry, as its performance is currently plagued by excessive fragmentation and growing competition pressures, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said at its plenary session on 14 February.

In its opinion Industrial change in the health sector, which discusses the topic from an industrial viewpoint, notably the technological medical sector, the EESC warned that Europe's companies need the same level playing field as their overseas competitors and that it was the EU's responsibility to streamline the medical technology sector and make it EU and world-fit.

Health is not everything, but without health everything is nothing. This quote not only applies to human beings but also to the industry itself. Therefore it is necessary to safeguard the health of one of Europe's most successful sectors, said the rapporteur of the opinion, Joost van Iersel.

Coordination and cooperation within Europe and including all stakeholders is key, Mr van Iersel emphasised. We therefore call on the European institutions to take the lead and bring together Europe's governments, insurance companies, regulators, patient and medical staff representations, and the industry in order to cooperate and develop a common strategy.

He also pointed out that the sector must be streamlined and initiatives bundled inside the states and regions. It is particularly in the health sector where EU industrial policy must build upon the shared national and EU competences in the framework of Article 168 TFEU, he said. 

While the medical technology sector is a buoyant sector and is still in a leading position, the industry is facing many challenges, including unfair trade practices, government-subsidised competitors and growing protectionism. Furthermore, the fragmentation of the sector and the significant differences between Member States' health systems, financial structures and states of technology hampers considerably rapid adaption to the steadily changing environment.

In its opinion the EESC also recommends the following measures:

  • The European institutions should also foster economic performance, innovation, digitalisation and effective public procurement, since an estimated 70% of global medtech sales go through a public procurement process.
  • National and regional barriers must be reduced to optimise outcomes of new technologies, and cross-border trade in medical devices and industrial products must be facilitated.
  • European, national and regional objectives should be brought under the same umbrella and EU funding must be duly coordinated and dovetailed with national programmes. The Commission should also promote exchange of successful experiences and encourage bilateral contacts between public and private health authorities.

Since the industry's  competitors are already at Europe's doorstep, the EU must also play a critical role in the creation of a level playing field, and trade negotiations must secure up-to-date European production in providing universal health care, added Mr Iersel, while co-rapporteur Enrico Gibellieri referred to the impact on workers in this sector.

The human factor is paramount. The transition to new health and care requires an open mind and new forms of professionalism in industry at all levels, as well as a redesign of health and care related work. The European social dialogue in health and social services should be reinforced in view of adequate education and training programmes as well as to upgrade the quality of working conditions and work places, Mr Gibellieri said.

In order to achieve the necessary openness to new ICT-supported solutions, information and empowerment of patients is also essential.


The European medical technology sector alone employs more than 575 000 people, working in approximately 26 000 companies. The sector is estimated at roughly EUR 100 billion. The positive trade balance of EUR 14.1 billion in 2015 was double that of 2006 and went substantially beyond the American trade surplus of EUR 5 billon. In 2015, health and long-term care accounted for 8.7% of GDP in the EU and for 15% of total government expenditure. This could rise to 12.6% of GDP by 2060 due to more costly treatments, ageing populations and the sharp rise in chronic diseases and co-morbidities.