When I worked as a doctor before entering politics, patients’ records were written by hand and consultations and tests were always carried out face to face – there was no other way.
Now, these practices seem old fashioned. These days, health records are kept electronically and, when necessary, a patient’s health information can be shared between GPs and specialists – and even across borders – at the click of a button.
Consultations can take place over the internet. Patients can monitor their own blood pressure and blood sugar levels and transmit this information to their doctor electronically. These and more innovative healthcare practices are now underway and I welcome them as part of the solution to the challenges facing Europe’s health systems.
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According to estimates, the number of people in the EU aged 65 and over is set to double between 1990 and 2050. Chronic diseases, which already account for 70 to 80 per cent of healthcare costs in the EU – an estimated €700bn – will no doubt continue to rise.
These challenges, coupled with new innovations, high patient expectations and a widening cross-border dimension to healthcare in the EU, are putting a strain on health systems’ capacities and budgets.
I am convinced that the right eHealth tools are empowering for patients and that they can improve access to and quality of care. By freeing up healthcare resources – not least doctors’ time – eHealth tools can help alleviate the burden on our health systems.
With these benefits in mind, I want to seize the opportunities offered by the emerging European digital market and ensure that we create an environment in which practical, innovative, and cost-effective eHealth solutions can thrive.
The deployment of eHealth is the responsibility of the member states, but there are many ways the EU can support and assist. We already have EU rules and guidelines for cross-border exchange of data, reimbursement of cross-border telemedicine services and recognition of prescriptions, as foreseen by the directive on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare.
In addition, we are adding value through networks, vision and financing. The eHealth network set up under the cross-border healthcare directive provides a forum for cooperation, support and guidance for speeding up the broad use of eHealth services and solutions.
Facilitating interoperability and safe and efficient handling of electronic health data across national and organisational boundaries is a key issue. The eHealth network has already adopted guidelines on cross-border exchange of patient summaries and ePrescriptions.
Such actions encourage the adoption of eHealth applications at national level. The eHealth action plan 2012-2020 sets out a long term vision for eHealth in Europe, so we can all get the most out of digital technologies and increase the pace of change.
It aims to improve interoperability between systems, increase awareness and skills among patients and healthcare professionals and to put patients at the centre of new initiatives. The plan will also ensure free legal advice for start-up eHealth businesses.
A vision for mHealth – a subset of eHealth, is also being formulated. Last year, the commission adopted a green paper and ran a wide consultation on opportunities, limits and regulatory issues concerning new medical and public health practices supported by mobile devices.
The EU provides various tools to finance eHealth. Member states can use structural funds for investing in eHealth. The connecting Europe facility (CEF) will finance the implementation of the two cross-border initiatives – patient summaries and ePrescriptions.
In addition, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315bn investment plan will allow EU countries to invest in key growth-enhancing health projects, including on ICT (eHealth, mHealth and big data).
The commission also cofinances eHealth related projects under the health programme and Horizon 2020. These include the eHealth governance initiative which supports the work of the eHealth network.
Despite the increasing acceptance and take-up of eHealth solutions in Europe, several obstacles need to be overcome for broader deployment. We must ensure that eHealth solutions are legally sound as patients and data increasingly move across borders, and assure citizens that their health data will be protected.
We must also collect convincing evidence on the benefits of eHealth to foster investment. I am pleased to witness eHealth increasingly being used alongside traditional medical practices in Europe. I firmly believe that smart use of modern technology will help the EU provide efficient, high quality healthcare for all its citizens.
I will make it a priority to continue to work with my colleagues in the commission, member states and stakeholders, to maximise the potential of eHealth in the EU’s emerging digital market for the benefit of EU health systems and patients.