Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the conference ‘Building the Future of Health

Ladies and gentlemen,

Some time ago, several Dutch train stations installed pianos, plastered with the words ‘Play me’ in big letters. You can see the same thing in other countries, too. And every time someone with any talent sits down to play, something special happens. People stop and listen. Sometimes they start singing along or dancing. And the show always puts a big smile on the faces of spectators and passing commuters.

Now, you may be thinking: ‘That’s great, but what do those pianos have to do with today’s theme?’ Well, to me it’s obvious: being in a good mood improves our psychological health. And above all, it’s an example of how making a small change in our everyday surroundings can make a big difference.

Here’s another example which is definitely ‘on topic’. I recently visited De Hogeweyk, near Amsterdam, which is a care community for elderly people with dementia. It’s nothing like a traditional care home, with corridors and rooms, a recreation room and meals served on plates with plastic lids. No, De Hogeweyk offers a safe, village environment where residents can live alongside people who are like them. They can go to the supermarket, theatre or restaurant. They can enjoy cycling, walking and sports. And yes, there’s even a piano.

The director of the village, Jannette Spiering, explains the concept well. In her words: ‘People with dementia can no longer keep pace with the outside world. So at De Hogeweyk, we’ve created a world that keeps pace with them.’ What’s more, she didn’t talk in terms of caring for patients. Instead she talked about making sure the residents could be themselves right up to the end. Living as independently as possible. In an environment that feels safe and secure. I saw and felt that while I was there. It’s a unique place, and when you visit you can’t help thinking: if I’m unlucky enough to be diagnosed with dementia, this is the place I’d like to be. And I should add: De Hogeweyk isn’t some exclusive private facility for the super-rich. Working with existing budgets and a lot of creativity, this care community delivers a top-level performance day in, day out.

De Hogeweyk succeeded by taking a radically different approach to its residents’ living environment. By looking differently at people’s needs and the services required to meet them. By letting go of traditional care concepts and linking care to a different use of space. And that approach, of course, is at the heart of this conference.

Making a conscious link between health and architecture may seem revolutionary, but in fact our ancestors also knew that a pleasant living environment enhanced people’s quality of life. The next time you visit Amsterdam have a good look at the façades of the older houses in the city centre. Many were built with tall windows and large glass panels above the doors, to let in as much daylight as possible. After the mass introduction of electric lighting in the 20th century we began to see countless factories, office buildings, schools, flats and even hospitals which admitted barely any daylight. The rationale was cost efficiency. And after all, light bulbs offered plenty of light, didn’t they? But we’ve since learned we were wrong. Too little daylight causes all sorts of health problems, both physical and psychological. And we now realise that the sun is still essential for proper daylight therapy.

In my years as prime minister, my respect and admiration for healthcare professionals has grown deeper and deeper. From the staff nurse and the hospital administrator to the lab technician and the health app developer. This is a sector where a lot is happening and a lot is changing – often at the same time. And it’s a challenge to manage everything effectively while maintaining the highest quality standards, especially with a view to the longer term.

You know better than anyone that, in the healthcare sector, many factors affect each other. Life expectancy is rising, which means more people suffering from chronic diseases. These days, elderly people want to stay independent for as long as possible. Medicines are becoming more effective and treatment methods more refined. Home automation and the Internet of Things are of growing significance for remote care. And of course, all these advances and innovations have a price, which is rising costs. Indeed, the affordability of care is definitely a factor to be considered.

So the challenge is enormous, and we will meet it only if we are willing to broaden our perspective. Over the next few days you’ll be setting a great example. Because health care is not only about patients, doctors and medicines. It’s also about the links between education and health. It’s about prevention, it’s about independence and quality of life. And, yes, it’s about the role played by the environment you live in.

While preparing for today, I’ve seen many of the promising plans, ideas and projects that you will be discussing. I challenge you to make them reality. To develop new concepts, with new approaches to spatial planning and architecture that lead to more healthy and healing environments. Delivering greater prevention and better care at an affordable price. And I hope you won’t mind me saying: you’ve definitely come to the right place.

This conference is of course relevant to every nation on the globe, but as prime minister of this fine country I would humbly suggest that it’s no accident that you’ve come to the Netherlands for this conference. We are, after all, one of the world’s leading players in the life sciences sector. Our healthcare system is renowned as one of the very best in the world. And our architects and planners are also among the global elite, which means you can find them working all over the world. All that know-how is here in one place for the next few days. In beautiful Groningen.

And if one piano, with one pianist, in one spot, can make such a difference, just imagine what all these expert, creative and driven professionals in one place could mean for the future of health care.

I wish you all an inspiring, instructive and successful conference.

Thank you.