Thomas Zeltner

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Thomas Zeltner
Born (1947-11-15) November 15, 1947 (age 72)
OccupationPhysician, lawyer, and former Secretary of Health of Switzerland
Known forFormer Secretary of Health of Switzerland; co-founder of the Global Patient Safety Forum; Professor of Public Health at the University of Berne, Switzerland; Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health; President of the Swiss Commission for UNESCO; and Board Member of the Medical University of Vienna

Thomas Zeltner (born 1947 in Berne, Switzerland) is a Swiss physician, lawyer, and former Secretary of Health of Switzerland Federal Department of Home Affairs FDHA. He has a long history as an innovative leader in public health and has repeatedly been ranked among the 12 most influential political figures of Switzerland. [1]


Zeltner is Professor at the University of Berne, Switzerland, in Public Health and Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. He chairs the Swiss Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction (Zürich) and is President of UNESCO Commission of Switzerland. He advises the Swiss government in the implementation and future development of The National Health Policy. He is also the Vice Chair of the University Council of the Medical University of Vienna.

Currently he is the project leader and designated first chairman of the WHO Foundation established in Geneva in 2020. The WHO Foundation is a lean, impact-driven grant-making organization with the objective of addressing the most pressing global health challenges of tomorrow by financing WHO and its partners implementing the SDGs and WHO's general program of work.

Along with J. Michael Henderson, he is a co-founder of the Global Patient Safety Forum, a collaborative forum for global healthcare leaders. He is President of KPT Health Insurance, Switzerland and of Swiss Transfusion SRC Inc.


Zeltner was graduated with an M.D. and an LL.M. (master's in law) from the University of Berne. He specialized in human pathology and forensic medicine before becoming the head of Medical Services at the Bern University Hospital. He held various faculty positions at the University of Bern and at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is Doctor of law (honoris causa) of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

In 1991, the Swiss Government appointed Zeltner as the 8th Director-General of the Swiss National Health Authority and Secretary of Health of Switzerland, a position he held until the end of 2009.

Under Zeltner's leadership, Switzerland developed in 1991 a pioneering illicit drug policy, which has received global attention. It is based on a 4-pillar strategy (prevention, harm reduction, therapy, and law enforcement), which is enshrined in the Swiss law on narcotic drugs. The harm reduction policy of Switzerland – which includes large-scale syringe exchange programs (also in prisons) [2] and the medical prescription of heroin for chronic heroin addicts – was introduced against the strong opposition of the UN drug control authorities, [3] but endorsed by a majority of the Swiss population in several popular referenda. [4]

In 1999-2000, at the request of the then-Director General of WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Zeltner chaired a committee which investigated the efforts of multinational tobacco companies to undermine tobacco control activities of the World Health Organization (2000). [5] This landmark report marks the beginning of the development of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2003). [6] With his efforts to reduce tobacco consumption in Switzerland, Zeltner became a favorite adversary of big tobacco and was nicknamed “the Tobacco Taliban." [7]

As Director General of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, he presided over changes to transform the regulated market model of the Swiss health care sector into a more value- and consumer-driven health care system. The Swiss model guarantees access to affordable insurance to all, even if they have pre-existing medical problems. All residents are required to buy insurance even if they are currently healthy, so that the risk pool remains reasonably favorable. Finally subsidies are given to low income families to pay for their premiums. Even though the Swiss pay 11.5% of the GDP for health (data 2015), [8] a majority of 78% considers that the system works well or very well. [9] The Swiss health care model is gaining increased international interest, particularly in the U.S. [10]

Zeltner was a member and Vice-President of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) (1999-2002). He chaired the committee to reform the governance rules of the WHO in 2002-4. He was also Executive President of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe (1994–95) and Chairman of the Governing Council of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, (1998-2000). Between 2012 and 2014, Zeltner served the World Health Organization (WHO) in the capacity of a Special Envoy. [11] In this function he advised the Director General of WHO, Margaret Chan, in critical areas of the ongoing reform of this UN agency [12] [13] including how to cooperate with non-State actors [NGOs and the private sector] without compromising WHO's integrity; and how to better align WHO's priorities with the resources available to finance them. The work was successfully completed by adoption of the Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA) by the World Health Assembly in May 2016.

Current position

He serves as an advisor of the Swiss Government for the implementation of the National Health Policy, Health2020.

He is co-founder of the Global Patient Safety Forum, a convening organization of the world's leading patient safety organizations and member of the steering board of the Global Patient Safety Challenge, Medication Safety, of the World Health Organization. Other co-founders include J. Michael Henderson. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Health Systems and Reform.

Since 1992, he has been Professor of Public Health at the University of Berne and is a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health (Boston). From 2018-22 he serves as a member of the Board of the Medical University of Vienna (Austria). Zeltner is Chairman of the board of the health insurer KPT, the leading online insurance company in Switzerland, which is repeatedly qualified as the best health insurer of Switzerland. [14] He is also president of Blood Transfusion CRS Switzerland, the organization in charge of securing Switzerland's provision with blood and blood products.

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