EU's eHealth action plan gives 'added value'
The sharing of knowledge and best practice across borders, combined with technological improvements, can significantly improve Europe's health systems, writes Pilar Ayuso
The European Union is characterised by a wide range of high quality health systems. These systems are currently facing numerous challenges, in the form of increased demand for health services arising from the ageing of the population, the impact of chronic diseases, the mobility of patients and healthcare professionals, heightened public expectations as regards the quality of healthcare and increasingly tight healthcare budgets. We must find new ways to preserve the quality of our systems and continue doing the best to protect our fellow citizens' health, even in times of strong budgetary constraints. eHealth can go some way to meeting these challenges, as it provides a way of improving access to healthcare services for people living in remote and sparsely populated areas, of improving working conditions, reducing waiting times and, most importantly, of helping to ensure the provision of reliable, effective and high quality healthcare everywhere in the EU.
"We must find new ways to preserve the quality of our systems and continue doing the best to protect our fellow citizens' health, even in times of strong budgetary constraints"
The treaty on the functioning of the EU stipulates that union action must complement national policies and be directed towards improving public health. The eHealth action plan 2012-2020 adopted by the commission in December 2012 is a remarkable example of 'European added value' in the area of health. Wholesale adoption of eHealth throughout the EU requires that healthcare service providers work together - beyond the areas for which they are responsible and linguistic boundaries - to provide high quality services focused on patient safety. Against this background, technical standardisation, interoperability of European healthcare systems and the introduction of certification and authentication schemes applicable across the EU are paramount. For this to work, member states shall share their knowledge, experiences and good practices and cooperate with the commission to increase the effectiveness of eHealth systems across the EU. In particular, pioneer member states have to help by sharing their experiences with those which are less advanced, thus bringing Europe upward and eventually to the forefront of eHealth. Parliament's own initiative report underlined the EU's common vision on eHealth. It particularly insisted on the importance of interoperability of eHealth systems and welcomes the commission's intention to propose an eHealth interoperability framework by 2015.
Besides technical challenges, moving towards eHealth is also a legal challenge for the European legislator. In order for the general public and healthcare professionals to have faith and confidence in the benefits of eHealth applications, these must be given legal certainty. Data protection, confidentiality, privacy and responsibility are some of the key legal issues that need to be resolved in order for eHealth services to be successfully introduced. Against this background, the parliament's report welcomed the commission's intention to launch a study regarding the legal aspects of eHealth services.
"in order for the eHealth plan to be successfully implemented, it is also paramount that healthcare professionals are closely involved and adequately trained"
It is essential that eHealth-related projects are developed with the best interests of patients in mind since, at the end of the day, the prime objective is to improve the quality of healthcare delivered to the public in the EU, without overlooking the cultural differences that exist between member states in the field of healthcare. Of course, in order for the eHealth plan to be successfully implemented, it is also paramount that healthcare professionals are closely involved and adequately trained. Against this background, the opinions of doctors, other healthcare professionals and of patients associations must be taken into account throughout the development of eHealth applications. They are the ones who will use these applications, which means that they must not only be convinced of their worth, but also know how to use them, and that all the requisite information must be made available and tailored in a clear manner for the field to which it relates.
The work undertaken is promising, and there is still much to do, for example, in the area of mobile health (mHealth). As such, the parliament also highlighted in its report the potential of "mHealth" and wellbeing applications for patients and the need to have a clear legal framework to ensure their development under medical scrutiny and safe adoption. We urged the commission to come forward with an 'mHealth action plan' and will therefore follow with interest the outcome of the broad stakeholders consultation on mHealth that the commission launched recently.
Last but not least, it is also worth noting that there is a solid potential market for eHealth - an important fact during times of economic downturn. The world market in telemedicine was worth €7.1bn in 2010, €8.4bn in 2011, and is forecast to continue expanding to €19.8bn in 2016, while the global mHealth market is set to grow to €17.5bn a year by 2017.
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