Looking at eHealth from a pan-European perspective

Europe’s healthcare domain is facing an uncertain future. While our healthcare systems are starting to feel the strain of an ageing population, today’s young people are projected to be the first that will have a lower life expectancy than their parents due to the negative health effects of physical inactivity. This unhealthy scenario is compounded by an economic crisis which is forcing many health authorities in Europe to meet mounting challenges with declining resources.

While the challenges are significant, they bring with them an opportunity that must be seized. Currently, healthcare lags a decade behind virtually every other sector in the EU when it comes to implementing digital technologies. Now is the time to embrace smart innovation which will revolutionise healthcare and open up a whole new market.

To do so, we need to acknowledge that, to remain viable in the long run, healthcare systems need to become more efficient – responding to broader societal trends that all European countries are facing, including an ageing society and an increasing desire of patients to become actively involved in their care processes.

This does not mean reinventing the wheel. We can already see excellent examples from across Europe of how digital technologies are enhancing citizens’ health and wellbeing. Scotland is reaping the benefits of implementing telecare solutions on a wide scale. Some 6,600 unplanned hospital admissions were avoided over four years. In 2013, we expect to see a body of new evidence to emerge on the benefits of telehealth solutions for chronic disease management, from the pan-EU Renewing Health telehealth pilot.

Now is the time to act and seize the opportunities that citizens are demanding and which are offered by European partnerships

Of course, no single solution will ever suit every EU country, healthcare system, hospital or patient. However, much can be learnt from the experience of others. For this reason, the European Commission, through initiatives such as the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing, is bringing together partners to share best practice and research, as well as innovate and invest in solutions with the aim of increasing the average healthy lifespan of European citizens by two years. This approach means that successful technological, social and organisational innovation can thrive without the risks of venturing into uncharted waters. In the area of integrated care, for example, we have managed to attract partners who together committed more than €1 billion of investment.

Let’s not forget that patients are not only being empowered to manage their conditions, but also to take a proactive approach to illness prevention. Already there is clear evidence of people wanting to be in the driving seat. In the UK, the NHS Choices website gets up to 11 million visitors a month, and there are more than 13,000 health and fitness-related apps for the iPhone alone.

This desire to take action and interact with technology provides real opportunities for businesses to innovate for the future health of Europe’s citizens, and to make widespread availability and use of eHealth a reality. Now is the time to act and seize the opportunities that citizens are demanding and which are offered by European partnerships.

Going forward, the European Commission will work to foster an even better performing and open market for innovative eHealth and wellbeing products and services. This will mean addressing the needs indicated in the recent report of the eHealth Task Force: unlocking health data while ensuring strong safeguards, improving digital health skills among health and care workers and citizens, and ensuring that we connect so everyone can benefit from a real digital healthcare revolution, wherever in Europe they may be.

Paul Timmers is director for sustainable and secure society, within DG Connect at the European Commission, and was previously at the University of North Carolina and United Business Institute, Brussels.