EU must confront ethical dilemmas related to eHealth

Data protection, cybercrime and the technological amplification of human potential require serious debate, says Nicola Caputo.

By Nicola Caputo

30 Apr 2015

As one of my priorities within parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee, eHealth is the subject of two of my written declarations – 'Ethical dilemmas in relation to technical innovation' and 'eHealth'.

In addition, I have raised eHealth in numerous questions to the European commission as it holds many possibilities for bringing about decisive advances in healthcare systems within the member states of the EU.

ICT technologies, which could also be linked to wearable devices, can bring improve care methods and life expectancy, reduce costs and management fees and help in the decentralisation of health policies. Its incredible range of benefits obliges the European institutions to stimulate eHealth as much as possible.


This is a commitment I demand from the commission and the president of the council in order to safeguard fundamental rights within our public services, including the rights of the disabled, and in order to reduce the disparities in investment between member states.

However, eHealth is not only a question of healthcare bureaucracy, but also represents an opportunity to question whether it is right to use new technologies to transcend the limits of the human body.

These are the guiding principles of the ideas I would like to raise in parliament. First, there are the ethical dilemmas regarding the choices made available by medical science that must be looked at in order to develop a prudent and informed eHealth policy.

Should eHealth and ICT be developed alongside humanity in a supporting role, or also beyond humanity by amplifying human potential? A brain graft for treating Alzheimer’s is different from a graft that allows a connection to the entirety of the knowledge housed on the internet.

We have heard that DeepMind – a Google company – is creating learning algorithms that combine machine learning and neurosciences. Are we progressing towards artificial intelligence? In the future, 3D printing will be capable of replacing transplants. Are we moving towards a 'bionic man'? How many of the components will still be 'human'?

Second, there is the regulation of data produced through eHealth. The online sharing of data from medical files and medical studies can stimulate research, but it must be subject to protection of the privacy of patients and their consent.

A great deal of attention must be devoted to copyright aspects. This is a very active topic in the European parliament which, in my opinion, is difficult to distinguish from privacy.

We have heard that the IBM supercomputer Watson can enable amazingly accurate diagnoses and therapies, specifically tailored to the needs of patients. This is a very significant advance, but I have questions regarding privacy.

There is, in fact, a justified concern that the utilisation of text and data mining on an ever-increasing volume of information, while improving the quality of services, might be used by companies in order to create monopolies and manipulate user choice, or even by governments in intelligence operations.

It might be possible to consider the accumulated information – sometimes medical, but more generally all data – assembled by dominant internet companies as open data. This would then be utilisable by institutions so that they can generate new services, restoring technology as a means to an end and putting eHealth in the service of humanity.

Finally, there is security versus cybercrime. Here, I am not only referring to software and the associated data, but to hardware. There is a scenario where technology could be directed against humanity. What defence would we have against cyber-attacks from the deep web, where pacemakers, insulin pumps, ventilators and other devices connected online through the internet of things (IoT) could be unexpectedly turned off?

When considering medical applications in the context of eHealth, wearable technology, ICT and IoT, it is now up to our own consciences and the EU to provide a response to the demanding question of where humanity begins and technology ends.


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