eHealth can provide ‘triple win’ situation

Written by Neelie Kroes on 28 April 2014 in Feature

Patient empowerment, cost efficiency and boosts to innovative start-ups are benefits of embracing eHealth-friendly policies, writes Neelie Kroes

Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes

Over recent years, the European commission has been working hard to shape a new vision that puts people in control of their health and wellbeing. At the wheel are the patients, on the road towards efficient and effective healthcare. The benefits are a triple win: putting the patient in control, saving on costs and efficiency, and creating huge opportunities for innovative services and start-ups. This is the ethos behind our European innovation partnership for active and healthy ageing.

I will be attending the eHealth forum in Athens on 12-14 May, which will put this vision on the public stage at a time of substantial market opportunities. One of the key issues I will be discussing is the emergence of mobile health, or mHealth, defined as the use of mobile phones, tablets and other wireless devices in healthcare. These are smart devices for disease self-management and remote monitoring, leading to prevention rather than cure, and more independent living; tools offering fitness and dietary tips as well as lifestyle and wellbeing apps. These new technologies can all help healthcare professionals treat patients more efficiently, get citizens more involved in managing their health and diseases and help member states deal with tight budgetary and human resources, while facing an ageing population.

"The mHealth market is rapidly developing: around 100,000 health and wellbeing apps are already available across Apple’s AppStore, Google Play and on other global platforms"

One example of an mHealth service is the EU-funded Reaction project which developed a mobile system that helps doctors and nurses within the hospital to treat patients with diabetes. Via sensors, the system monitors vital signals such as blood glucose levels and administered drugs and gives therapy advice; the data stored on a server are shared via tablets used by the medical staff. This has significantly reduced the workload, increased the autonomy of nurses and improved the quality of care of diabetes patients.

The mHealth market is rapidly developing: around 100,000 health and wellbeing apps are already available across Apple’s AppStore, Google Play and on other global platforms. So far, more than 200 million individuals have downloaded sports, fitness and health apps. The rise of mHealth is unstoppable and we want to ensure mHealth reaches its full economic and social potential and contributes to high-quality healthcare. This will create huge opportunities for innovative services, start-ups and the app economy.

"For all eHealth systems to work seamlessly across national borders, the many different systems used by hospitals and other healthcare providers need to be able to communicate with each other"

Beyond mHealth, the market for digital health and wellbeing technologies is also growing rapidly. The global market for telemedicine alone is set to grow from €7.2bn in 2010 to €19.3bn by 2016. At the same time, the convergence between wireless communication technologies and healthcare devices, and between health and social care is creating innovative new businesses. And as our population ages, the ‘silver economy’ is emerging as a highly promising market.

On 9 April, the European commission published a consultation on mHealth to ask what should be done to increase user trust and patient safety in order to boost mHealth’s contribution to high quality healthcare. We want to know whether this should be done regionally, nationally or at EU level. We want feedback on issues related to ensuring that health apps meet citizens’ demands for quality and transparency. mHealth services must adhere to strict data protection rules, and we should be intelligent about how we use the data: we could prevent an epidemic in the future.

For all eHealth systems to work seamlessly across national borders, the many different systems used by hospitals and other healthcare providers need to be able to communicate with each other. While projects such as epSOS have taken great strides forward, this is not a widespread reality. On top of that, both patients and professionals need to learn to use these new systems. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the required change in mind-set: getting used to managing our health and care in a different way, from emailing your doctor to using devices to track your daily activities and levels of fitness.

In order to benefit from the great advantages which eHealth offers us, we of course need fast, reliable broadband networks, as well as a quality guarantee for high-quality connections end-to-end - the connections that new healthcare innovations may depend on. Our proposed safeguards for the open internet mean providers cannot just decide to block or throttle any content, application or services, including new health apps or services. And the successful vote of the connected continent regulation in the European parliament recently is a huge step forward in achieving this guarantee.

About the author

Neelie Kroes is European commission vice-president for the digital agenda

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