17 March 2014

An efficient, but fair, health system

Researcher profile

Professor Karsten Vrangbæk conducts research into the organisation of health services. This area is facing numerous major challenges due to changes related to demographics and economy, among other things.

Karsten Vrangbæk, 49, is a Professor at the Department of Public Health, the Department of Political Science, and Centre Director at the Centre for Health Economics and Policy (CHEP). As a bridge-builder between health and social sciences, he conducts research into the organisation of health services.

Why is your research area important to society?

Karsten Vrangbæk

As a child, Karsten Vrangbæk dreamt of becoming a polar explorer or a forest ranger. However, a career as a professor was where he landed. Photo: Mikal Schlosser.

In 2042, elderly people aged 65+ will account for one-fourth of the Danish population. This leads to significant challenges in the health area, and both finances and systems will come under a great strain. This means that research into how health services are organised is greatly needed in order to optimise without compromising quality.

At the moment, I am involved in several research projects, all focusing on the organisation of health services in the broad sense. One of them is concerned with the local government reform, which introduced a new division of municipalities and regions in Denmark, resulting in important changes in the distribution of tasks between the state, regions and municipalities. This, of course, had a significant impact in the health area, and we are looking into which approaches are used to coordinate and communicate across hospitals, GPs and municipalities in the individual patients' cases.
Another example of one of my research projects is an EU project, where I examine the EU Directive on the application of patients' rights in cross-border healthcare – according to which patients, in principle, are more or less free to choose treatment abroad. How will the costs be distributed? Which impact will it have on the individual national systems? And how far is the EU's rules going to encroach on an area which has traditionally been left to the sovereignty of the states? We are trying to answer these questions by comparing the implementation of the Directive in a number of different EU countries.

Another subject which I am spending a great deal of my waking hours on at the moment is the so-called KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Communities).
At the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences we are currently in the middle of an exciting venture, applying to become a part of KIC – a major pan-European collaboration to find solutions to the challenges brought on by the demographic development. We are attempting to bring together welfare technology, different ways of organising health services and new treatments. The business community is entering into partnerships with universities and public authorities.  I am part of a European group of experts, and as the Centre Director at the Centre for Health Economics and Policy, I am responsible for looking into the economic perspectives.

Why did you choose to become a researcher?

When I was 23, I went to the USA to add an international dimension to my education and career. As I am saying these words, it becomes clear to me that I was already quite ambitious back then. From 1988 to 1992, I studied economics in the USA, and had my first meeting with the university and research environment, which seemed appealing to me. In addition to my studies, I worked for a health insurance company, and had already taken an interest in this field. When I returned to Denmark, I had a student job in a research unit that built bridges between several research environments, which also aroused my interest.

What is the highlight of your career?Karsten Vrangbæk

It does not make sense to me to single out one project or result, because I work on so many different projects. However, in general, I would say that it is when we manage to successfully build a bridge between health and social sciences that my job becomes really interesting. It is always a triumph when you are suddenly able to understand or challenge the way in which the health sector is organised, because this is a large sector which continues to grow and where important issues are at stake.

How do you view the future of the health sector?

I have a fierce sense of justice, and I don't like it when I see differential treatment in the health sector. However, sometimes differential treatment does take place, because the sector is so complex and has so many interfaces between different bodies that have to work together. For example, in some fields the follow-up after hospitalisation is very well-managed, while there are huge gaps in others – such as the psychiatric field. However, I would like to say that I am still optimistic, because the sector keeps developing better treatments, even in the face of pressure.

What do you do when you are not working?

Then I mainly spend time with my family – my wife and my two boys aged 9 and 12. Other than that, I kayak, bike and play tennis, not only to stay in shape, but also for the social aspect.