Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (World Health Organization, 1948).

This definition of health is in the constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) and it has remained unchanged since 1948. WHO’s constitution moreover affirms that health is a fundamental human right.

Health is closely linked to economic and social development. However, good health is not enjoyed equally across countries, regions and social groups. The European Commission (2009) reports major differences across EU Member States:

  • a five-fold difference in infant mortality (deaths of babies under one year of age);

  • a 14-year gap in life expectancy for men; and

  • an 8-year gap in life expectancy for women.

On top of this, large differences in health are also found between regions and social groups. Put simply, people with lower incomes or who are socially excluded, have a lower quality of life and die younger (Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, 2008).

Inequalities in health are also responsible for an enormous economic burden. This has been calculated as 20% of the costs of health care systems in the European Union (Mackenbach, Meerding, & Kunst, 2007: 5).

Addressing health inequalities is a key action of the EU Health Strategy  for 2008-2013 (European Commission, 2007). In 2009, the European Commission adopted a Communication on ‘Solidarity in Health: Reducing Health Inequalities in the EU’ (European Commission, 2009), setting out actions to address health inequalities. The Communication notes that Cohesion Policy can be used to reduce disparities between regions.

Health inequalities are recognised in the EU2020 Strategy, which calls for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth (European Commission, 2010).

The pages on funding themes in this guide in many cases identify specific groups that face the strongest health impacts. In using this information, and more generally in considering how Structural Funds will affect health, it will be important to consider the potential impacts and gains for poorer sectors of society, socially excluded and vulnerable groups.

The sources on this page can be found in References