People say a challenge is an opportunity in disguise. The EU's healthcare sector currently faces many challenges; acting upon them could create opportunities for innovation, growth and better healthcare. The key variable in this equation is eHealth.
eHealth includes those systems used by health professionals for clinical care with outside care institutions, systems for personalised telemedicine and homecare services, systems for integrated health information, or systems used for health-related aspects that are not linked to treatment. This broad scope for use entails an equally broad range of potential benefits.
Starting with citizens, eHealth can enable what we call self-management or self-care. This essentially enables access to health information, resulting in better information on health and awareness of a person's medical condition. This way, they are better equipped to manage their own health.
For example, if a patient knows the exact results of a blood test linked to a chronic condition, they can adjust the dosage of their medication instantly. This would allow for easy monitoring and promote more independence and autonomy for patients, further empowering them as a result.
Another benefit is the easier inclusion of disadvantaged or marginalised groups, as well as those geographically isolated.
eHealth could also bring substantial benefits to the elderly, helping them be more independent. eHealth services and applications can enable them to monitor and record daily activities and vital signs, notifying both the patient and health professional when needed.
Additionally, older adults suffering from mild forms of dementia could use a number of applications and platforms, such as SOCIABLE, a platform created under a European co-funded project with the aim of motivating social interaction among the elderly. Similar applications can be used for cognitive training and as a facilitator for the interaction of patients and healthcare professionals, as data management becomes easier and more efficient.
eHealth applications can also enable health professionals to have teleconsultations with patients, reducing distances and traveling time. Hospitals could use eHealth to improve care processes, for instance via patient flow management systems.
They could also reduce medical errors through intensive care information systems or medication management systems. Academia could use eHealth solutions for research, with a view to improving disease prevention, diagnoses and treatment.
eHealth services also have the potential to make national healthcare systems more efficient and effective, tailoring the service according to patients' needs.
This would be especially beneficial to patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart failure; eHealth could offer substantial benefits, such as easy monitoring and alerting medical professionals in case of certain parameters exceeding the levels set for a particular patient. Enhancing efficiency could also help relieve the pressure on EU budgets.
The economic perspective is important too. Aside from alleviating important costs, eHealth is one of the most rapidly growing services. The EU holds a share of more than €20bn of its global potential value.
However, there are a number challenges that need to be addressed before capitalising on the potential of eHealth.
Firstly, by shifting from face-to-face interactions between patients and healthcare providers to a virtual relationship, there is a risk of impersonality and isolation.
The human interaction dimension in healthcare services is very important, therefore eHealth should be seen as complementary to, not a replacement for, conventional medicine and practices.
eLiteracy and digital skills are also a challenge. Large amounts of the population could be excluded from enjoying a certain service, with major consequences on their health. Consequently, digital education, training and confidence-building with regards to eHealth tools are crucial, not only for patients but also for medical professionals. Additionally, eHealth tools need to be user-centric instead of technology-driven.
User-friendly and universally accessible tools will help reduce the risk of health inequalities emerging from the 'digital divide'. Concerns are regularly expressed over privacy and confidentiality.
We need a clear and transparent legal framework, guaranteeing the security and protection of sensitive health-related and personal data. Users' confidence, explicit consent and ownership of the data are just some of the issues that trouble citizens. It is important to reassure them, if we are to allow for the sector to grow. To overcome these barriers, it is not enough to simply identify them.
We must learn lessons from them and find practical ways of addressing them. This requires a holistic approach, involving decision-makers as well as scientists, healthcare professionals, patients and industry. It will also not be sufficient to deal solely with the problems at an operational level, nor will it be enough to tackle them on a purely political level.
With consideration of the ongoing changes in society and the evolving specialisation in healthcare, the idea of integrated care has become more important than ever.
The concept of integrated care focuses on the coordinated treatment of patients by aligning and actively integrating all necessary stakeholders, including the patients themselves, and resources along the treatment process.
A major task is therefore to establish working interfaces between the various stakeholders, but also between the different stages of treatment.
It is clear that we are being called to act upon great challenges. Yet we have the tools at our disposal to convert those challenges into opportunities and steer the healthcare sector to the new age.