It's time to extend EU's digital transformation to health and care

Written by Vytenis Andriukaitis on 13 November 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Digital technologies are a huge part of our daily lives, so it’s time to extend their scope into healthcare, writes Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Vytenis Andriukaitis | Photo credit: Natalie Hill


According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, fewer than one in five of us (18 per cent) have used online health and care services in the last year. That’s quite surprising in this digital age, more so when we consider that 76 per cent of Europeans use the internet every day and that Europeans have a generally positive attitude towards digital technologies. 

Indeed, 75 per cent of us think they are good for the economy and 67 per cent of us think they improve our quality of life. 

As European Commissioner for health, I see something wrong with this picture, and I want to ensure that health policy takes full advantage of today’s digital transformation.


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The Juncker Commission has made it a priority to create a digital single market (DSM) where the EU’s single market freedoms ‘go digital’, boosting growth and jobs. 

In the area of health, Europe faces various challenges: an ageing population and a parallel rise in non-communicable diseases, re-emergence of infectious diseases and an increased demand for healthcare, resulting in higher costs for all countries. 

I believe that digital solutions can be part of the toolbox to foster effective, accessible and resilient health systems, advance medical research and provide patient-centred care.

At the midway point of the DSM, I want to give fresh impetus to digital health and care for the benefit of citizens across the EU.

Following the mid-term review of the DSM strategy this May, I am developing, together with my DSM colleagues, a strategy paper specifically on digital health and care. 

The aim is to overcome barriers in access to and free movement of patients and health data, better pool EU-wide evidence and expertise, trigger research and investment in digital health, and help people manage their own health. 

Through a public consultation that ended on 12 October, we asked citizens and stakeholders for feedback on three main areas. 

First, citizens’ secure access to their health data and the possibility to share it across borders through interoperable electronic health records; second, connecting and sharing data and expertise to advance research, improve prevention, personalise health and care, and better anticipate epidemics; and third, using digital services to promote citizen empowerment and integrated person-centred care.

The public consultation drew nearly 1500 replies and showed a broad support for health-related actions in the digital single market. Unsurprisingly, privacy and security were people’s main concerns. Privacy is mentioned by almost 70 per cent of respondents as the main barrier to both access to and sharing of health data.

To overcome these barriers, respondents want the EU to develop standards for data quality and reliability (60 per cent), ensure standardised electronic health records (57 per cent) and health-related cybersecurity standards (54 per cent).

I would like to thank everyone who aired their views in the consultation. Your input will help us finalise the strategy paper, setting out the scope for further measures in digital health and care in the next months.

As pointed out in the mid-term evaluation, we have successes to build on. For example, we are making progress on a European eHealth digital service infrastructure for EU countries to exchange ePrescriptions and patient summaries.

Thanks to funding by the Connecting Europe Facility, at least 16 countries should already be at the stage to do this by 2020.

This is a vital step in achieving interoperability of eHealth systems and towards the modernisation and efficiency of our health systems. We aim to complete this infrastructure in the coming years, helping the remaining EU countries deploy, connect, and eventually exchange full electronic health records (EHRs) across the EU.

We can also harness the potential of the European reference networks, launched in March this year, to pool medical expertise and data for faster diagnosis and treatment of rare and complex diseases. Being able to tap into more evidence and data could help us detect disease outbreaks, accelerate diagnosis and develop better treatments. 

I am encouraged that most participants in the public consultation would agree to their personal health data being used for research purposes, and that there is broad support for the three pillars of work we propose.

As we enter the second phase in the construction of the DSM, I will strive to meet the high expectations of European citizens. Building on our successes, I will work with authorities and stakeholders across Europe to accelerate the adoption of digital solutions in health and care to maximise the benefit for patients, health systems and medical research.

 

About the author

Vytenis Andriukaitis is European health and food safety Commissioner

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