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Dagfinn Høybråten’s new Nordic project: health cooperation

Dagfinn Høybråten’s new Nordic project: health cooperation

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Thomas Glahn

Much tighter cooperation between Nordic health services is in the pipeline and if it succeeds the cooperation model can easily be expanded to include other policy areas which would help develop the Nordic welfare model. That’s the vision of the project’s chief architect, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers Dagfinn Høybråten.

When the so-called 2009 Stoltenberg report highlighted a considerable potential for a Nordic foreign and defence cooperation, it kicked off unprecedented defence collaboration in the Nordic region. A similar report on the potential for Nordic health sector cooperation has been initiated and it too might well herald unprecedented joint efforts between the Nordic countries. 

That’s what Dagfinn Høybråten thinks. One of his first major tasks as Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers has been to secure the backing from the Nordic ministers of health and social affairs for launching a survey into how Nordic countries’ health sectors can cooperate closer and in a more committed way.

“The Stoltenberg report is an inspiration. Its recommendations have by and large been executed and resulted in defence cooperation. It used to be considered impossible, yet now everyone sees the sense in a practical sharing of resources. We can do the same within the health sector to great effect,” he says.

Political will to set targets and to act

The Nordic countries are small and share the challenges of rising costs and demands for specialisation in the health sector, while fewer people are available to pay for it. That’s why cooperation can bring great rewards, believes Dagfinn Høybråten. And initial feedback from ministries indicate that there is political will both to set clear targets for Nordic health cooperation and to sign up to action.

The former Swedish Minster of Health, county governor and long-term member of parliament for the Liberal Party, Bo Könberg, has been tasked with overseeing a report on the health sector. He will visit the Nordic countries to talk to politicians and health sector experts to map the most important health challenges facing them in the next 10 to 15 years. The findings will form the basis for his recommendations which will be presented in May 2014 and debated during a Nordic meeting of ministers for health and social affairs in July 2014.

Nordic health cooperation is not a new idea, underlines Dagfinn Høybråten. It already exists and works very well, for instance under the auspices of the WHO and the EU, patients can be treated for certain medical conditions in other Nordic countries from their own, and there is Nordic cooperation on organ transplants.

Common ground despite differences

But now the cooperation can be made more systematic and it can be expanded to include more areas, thinks Dagfinn Høybråten. Just which areas this will cover will be identified in the report, but closer and more committed cooperation on highly specialised treatments could be beneficial, the Secretary General says. 

He used to be Norway’s Minister for Health and was the man behind the then very controversial Norwegian total ban on smoking in restaurants and night clubs. Norway was seen as going it alone both internationally and within the Nordic region. Dagfinn Høybråten admits there are different approaches to health policies in the different Nordic countries. Yet the differences are not so big that common ground cannot be found.

“This does not stop cooperation, the fact that we in the Nordic region differ in our views on smoking and even more in our view on alcohol. I never tried to influence my Nordic minister colleagues to introduce a smoking ban, but leading by example is often the most powerful thing you can do. Since then nearly 50 countries have introduced smoking legislation – even Denmark, despite that country’s tradition for not interfering in personal freedoms.”

Protecting welfare

If the Nordic countries can be made to enter into more comprehensive cooperation on health, the Nordic Council of Ministers has solved its part of the task, and it will be up to the individual countries to carry the cooperation forward. In that case Dagfinn Høybråten is ready to use the same method in order to intensify cooperation in other areas as well. He sees benefits with  even more issues being solved together and with Nordic countries sharing more tasks between them. This will create better solutions and be more efficient, which is necessary to maintain and develop the Nordic welfare model, he says.

Dagfinn Høybråten is also an ambassador for a better branding of the Nordic welfare model:

“The Economist calls it a supermodel. It is efficient despite high taxes, and we have a highly praised three-partite system in the labour market which secures solid respect and rules for the social partners to follow. The rest of the world praises us while we ourselves are often critical. It is a shame and it is unfortunate, because many countries consider the Nordic countries to be role models.”

Boss for several cultures a new thing

He came into the job as Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers in March 2013 from a long career as a politician and public official. He has also been head of the Norwegian National Insurance Service with responsibility for 8,000 staff. But this is the first time he heads a multicultural organisation with both Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic and Danish employees.

“It’s an exciting task, because even though we are neighbours there are linguistic and cultural differences which it is important for me as leader to understand.”

He has already experienced that there is big differences in social conventions and in how direct Nordic people are. Then there are the language differences which Dagfinn Høybråten not only wants to learn and understand, but he also enjoys them and find them “very interesting."

Dagfinn Høybråten’s CV
  1. Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers since 4 March 2013.
  2. Active in Norwegian political life for more than 30 years, including seven years as Minister for Health, Minister for Labour and Social Affairs for the Christian Democrats.
  3. Long experience as a public official, including head of Norway’s National Insurance Service between 1997 and 2004.
  4. Degree in politics from the University of Oslo in 1984
  5. Has written several books
  6. 55 years old
  7. Married with four children


1 minute interview

What book are you currently reading?

I often return to a book by another Secretary General: Dag Hammarskjöld’s ‘Markings’. It contains great life wisdom.

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

The most indispensable of my electronic tools must be my tablet.

What is your hidden talent?

I have a weakness for impersonations.

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

As a child my dream was to become a farmer like my grandfather.


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