Health sector ICT usage lagging '10 years behind'

An evolution in healthcare processes is long overdue, warns Jim Nicholson

By Jim Nicholson

02 May 2014

In the UK we have cultivated a healthy respect for our remarkable but blundering national health service. Nevertheless, as the pressure of an ageing European population takes its toll on resources, our unwieldy and fragmented health services across the European Union no longer seem fit for purpose.

There is no doubt that healthcare lags 10 years behind almost every other sector in the introduction of innovative IT provisions. With one click of an app on our mobile phones we can access our bank balance, but not our medical records; we can book a hotel, but not a doctor's appointment; and we can order groceries, but not our prescription. A huge chasm exists between available technology and its application to ongoing healthcare provision.

A 'beacon' group of member states, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Spain and Sweden, have powered ahead in establishing dynamic national eHealth initiatives. ePrescribing, online access to patient records, remote monitoring of chronic illness and integrated information sharing are common place. Patients are informed and empowered to take responsibility for the management of their wellbeing, which many believe could deliver enormous savings for our overstretched health services.

"A huge chasm exists between available technology and its application to ongoing healthcare provision"

For 10 years now the European commission has been publishing eHealth action plans, guidelines, communications, pilot projects and networks to relatively limited effect. For our healthcare systems to evolve we can no longer accept political apathy. The eHealth action plan 2012-2020 on innovative healthcare for the 21st century is an instruction leaflet that should be read from cover to cover, not thrown to the back of the medicine cabinet.

The European parliament has written an overly prescriptive report. However, when we remove the unnecessary packaging we find three fundamentally useful recommendations. First, we must improve our national policies on eHealth. Efficient and cost effective healthcare provision must be the ultimate objective, but we can only achieve this if we implement national policies which are tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each member state. Second, we must encourage collaboration between patients, healthcare professionals and ICT developers. Neither the problems nor the solutions will be identified if one link in this communication chain is missing. And finally, we must protect patient data. eHealth has enormous potential, but we cannot harness this potential without a coherent legal framework to manage its use. Patients must be confident that their data is not abused or mishandled.

An evolution in healthcare provision is long overdue. eHealth is part of the evolution but it will necessitate better training, further research and innovation, and more targeted funding in order to exploit its full potential within our established healthcare systems. This report is a useful supplement to national and EU action plans on eHealth. Let us hope these plans make greater advancements in the next 10 years than we have seen to date.

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