The time to move e-health forward is now as policies on Data Protection and Artificial Intelligence unfold and the negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 begin.
Technology is exciting, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the opportunities it offers. Digital solutions are increasingly pivotal in Europe and their role in ensuring thriving, future-proof, and sustainable societies is expected to become even more crucial in the coming decades. This is particularly true for the health sector. We all know what Europe’s health systems are up against: financial pressure and the high costs of life-saving medicines, the growing lack of human resources, and the rising burden of chronic diseases against the backdrop of ageing societies. Digital tools can make a difference for health, but only when we decide to be bold about it.
2018 is an important year for digital health and there is strong momentum to move forward. However, if we are serious about reforming European health systems, we need to make sure that digital solutions can flourish. We need to secure funding in the right places, and put in place structures that allow us to use digital tools effectively, for instance to focus scarce resources and realise integrated care.
A few structures have already put in place, and we can build on these. One example is the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect in 2018. The GDPR offers a start in ensuring legal alignment with rapid technological innovation, while it provides greater certainty and transparency around the use of data. It also strengthens patient and consumer confidence.
Another step in the right direction is the recently launched strategy on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Europe, in which the European Commission outlines its plans to become a leader in AI and to step up investments in AI. At the same time, the European Commission launched a communication on the transformation of health and care on the digital single market.
The communication underscores the need to reduce the existing fragmentation on the European market. One of its key objectives is to facilitate the cross-border exchange of health data for research and health policy, which is an important challenge to tackle. To illustrate, cross-border health exchange could accelerate the diagnosis of rare diseases, and it could help to find tailored treatment for almost 30 million European citizens suffering from a rare disease. The opportunity is there. We now need to be bold enough to effectively use what we have.
How can we achieve this? We need the commitment of European countries to work together and establish a fully-fledged pan-European infrastructure for digital health. Now, as the European institutions are negotiating a new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the 2021-2027 period, is the time to make this happen. We need an investment boost for the new generation of digital infrastructures, to ensure that our healthcare priorities are met with the right tools.
Austria, which will hold the Presidency of the European Council from 1 July to 31 December 2018, will play an important role in the MFF deliberations and intends to take full advantage of the momentum for change. The country is indeed well-placed to move things forward, having invested more than €100 million in a digital infrastructure through which citizens can access their individual health records.
Finally, the ways in which digital solutions can help to make Europe’s health systems more sustainable for the benefit of sustainable will be a strong focus of the discussions at this year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), which will be held from 3-5 October in Bad Hofgastein, Austria. The EHFG 2018 calls for bold decisions and practical solutions for health, which is exactly what we need with the 2030 deadline to meet the Sustainable Development Goals coming closer. It is time to put our money where our mouth is.
Picture credits: Mārtiņš Zemlickis
Today e-health has emerged as a concrete pathway to help tackle one of the greatest challenges of contemporary Europe: creating health systems that are sustainable and inclusive. The European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), which is taking place in Bad Hofgastein from 4-6 October 2017, is a splendid opportunity to highlight this potential in all politics.
Not too long ago, e-health was no more than a concept that offered a promising glimpse of what the future of healthcare might look like. Today e-health has emerged as a concrete pathway to help tackle one of the greatest challenges of contemporary Europe: creating health systems that are sustainable and inclusive, with the potential to function as the cornerstone of flourishing economies.
The twentieth anniversary conference of the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), which will gather policy makers, researchers, as well as representatives from industry and civil society in Bad Hofgastein from 4-6 October 2017, is a splendid opportunity to highlight the potential of e-health in all politics.
The theme of the EHFG 2017 – “Health in All Politics” – underscores the need to build bridges between health and all other areas of political and societal action and debate. to break silos, and to increase awareness of the interconnectedness of every choice we make, as policy makers, but also as citizens.
Amid the challenges posed by ageing populations requiring more healthcare resources, e-health can be a powerful tool in facilitating these goals. With the help of e-health, policy makers now have the possibility to cater to population, but also to individual citizens’ needs, and directly cater to individual needs.
E-health provides a pathway for improving access to medicines and care, for reducing wasteful spending, and improving the quality of overall care. E-health also allows for effective disease monitoring and, consequently, prevention.
This year’s EHFG will provide a forum to address some of the challenges we face. I am referring in particular to cyber security, and the importance of striking a balance between the opportunities offered by e-health and free flowing data on the one hand, and ensuring patient safety and privacy on the other.
We also need to ensure the interoperability of systems and overcome the existing barriers between jurisdictions. Finally, we need to address scepticism among citizens and patients about what e-health can do for them.
The horizontal nature of these challenges requires an “all-politics” approach. We have every reason to be optimistic in this regard. The European Commission has been taking initiatives on e-health and digital health as part of its Digital Single Market Strategy.
In July 2017, it launched a consultation, which is still underway, to define the need and scope of policy measures that will promote digital innovation in improving people’s health, and address systemic challenges to health and care systems. And as co-chair of the e-health Network, I have seen the commitment of EU Member States to cooperate on boosting e-health.
For instance, in 2016, 20 Member States decided to set up e-Health National Contact Points, to facilitate cross-border data exchange. E-health is also one of the priorities of the Estonian Presidency of the European Union (July-December 2017), and I am looking forward to the outcomes of its high-level conference, shortly after the EHFG in October.
Healthcare systems are increasingly counting on technology to help them meet the needs of Europe’s citizens. We need a “Health in All-Politics”-encompassing strategy to make effective use of the e-health structures and tools, and to make Europe’s healthcare systems work better for patients, in a sustainable manner. I look forward to discussing these important issues at the EHFG.
 The European Commission’s mHealth Green Paper consultation (2014) indicated that Europeans often lack trust in mobile health applications
Picture credits: BEV Norton