The digital health revolution
The digital transformation of health and care will improve the lives of all Europeans. But more needs to be done to unlock the full potential of the technological revolution in health, reports Martin Banks.
Photo credit: Jean-Yves Limet
These were some of the keynote messages to emerge from a Thought Leader Live debate on eHealth, organised by The Parliament Magazine entitled, “Transforming Europe’s healthcare systems through data”.
The debate was particularly timely as it comes in the wake of the European Commission’s recent communication on enabling the digital transformation of health and care in the digital single market. The communication calls for action at EU level to accelerate the uptake of digital solutions in health.
Participants were told that issues ranging from changing demographics and rising healthcare costs to increasing multi-morbidity and patient expectations need to be urgently addressed.
A four-strong panel from the worlds of politics, industry, R&D and medicine were brought together to debate how best to tackle these and other related issues.
The panel included Socialist Group MEP Biljana Borzan, co-chair of the European Parliament’s interest group on patient access to healthcare, who highlighted that the challenge was to find ways of “using technology for the improvement of healthcare”.
The Croatian deputy said, “People now live into their 70s and 80s, much longer than in the recent past. The main reasons for this is improved healthcare as well as the emergence of digital health, which has been a big step forward. Looking to the future, digital health will help us improve public health still further. It offers us opportunities to use new ‘digital tools’ and we must make sure we do this in order to improve our lives.”
She pointed out that healthcare services have had to adjust the way they interact with patients and the public, particularly on data exchange. This, she said - in what proved to be a recurring theme throughout the debate - leads to the issue of patient privacy and trust.
“Looking to the future, digital health will help us improve public health still further. It offers us opportunities to use new ‘digital tools’ and we must make sure we do this in order to improve our lives” Biljana Borzan MEP
Borzan pointed out the importance of guaranteeing both of these as well as highlighting what she regards as another cause for possible concern: the principle of subsidiarity and member state competence in driving the digital health and care transformation.
Her comments were partly endorsed by another panellist, Ioana-Maria Gligor, a head of unit in the European Commission’s health directorate, who emphasised the “value” of harmonisation in healthcare. To help facilitate greater cross-border healthcare access, the Commission, she told the audience, is building ehealth digital service infrastructure which will allow eprescriptions and patient summaries to be exchanged between healthcare providers.
Another example of the EU’s current ehealth efforts is the “ehealth network,” a voluntary network of national authorities responsible for ehealth,which that was set up as a result of the cross-border healthcare directive. Several EU countries have also joined ehealth cooperation for personalised healthcare.
This, it was pointed out, aims to improve understanding and prevention of disease and allow for more personalised treatments.
The debate, moderated by Parliament Magazine’s managing editor Brian Johnson, heard that earlier this year the Commission also put forward an action plan to secure healthcare data while fostering European cooperation.
Gligor went on to warn that one “vitally important” issue for all such developments evolve in the future will be avoiding the “misuse” of confidential patient data.
The role the EU’s GDPR regulation can play in digital health was referenced by several speakers. Gligor said the regulation had provided legal clarity and was a “game changer” when it comes to boosting an individual’s “ownership” of their personal information, including their health records.
Cornelia Kutterer, a senior director of EU government affairs at Microsoft, whose executive briefing centre hosted the event, spoke of the “revolution” brought about by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital health.
Indeed, the pace of change is so rapid that some doctors and health care practitioners sometimes struggle to keep up.
“There is no doubt that these things have brought about a profound restructuring of the health sector,” she said.
She agreed with the other panellists that AI and big data have the potential to revolutionise and democratise healthcare. However, their use, she cautioned, also carries significant ethical implications and it was crucial therefore, she said, to ensure that the right frameworks are in place so that new technologies help rather than harm.
Bernard Maillet of the Standing Committee of European Doctors, recalled how many patients were now using the internet to access information about medical conditions and disease which, in the past, had been available only via a doctors’ surgery.
But while technology had moved on, some doctors, particularly older ones, had been slow to respond to the potential benefits offered by such change, he said. That is one reason, he noted, why it was necessary to “have both patients and practitioners fully involved” in ehealth deployment.
In a short concluding Q&A session, the ethical aspects were seized on by Etienne Maerien, an advisor to Belgian health minister Maggie de Block, who said, “Big data can be a force for good but accurate big data is even better. My concern is that the data being accessed and exchanged could be wrong.”
It was argued that a lack of skills often prevents patients finding, understanding and appraising online health information and apply their knowledge to make health decisions.
The same message was picked up by Mihaela Veringa, of bio-pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers, who went on to add, “Big data can help identify and find solutions to problems but there are risks and these have to be taken into account.”
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