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Telehealth Innovations for Europe

Submitted by on 06 Oct 2011 – 14:17

Telehealth Innovations for EuropePēteris Zilgalvis, J.D., Head of the ICT for Health Unit, DG Information Society and Media, European Commission

The challenges that European healthcare systems are currently facing are common knowledge: an ageing population, increased costs, the need to provide equal access to high quality health care services with limited resources and the growing prevalence of chronic diseases.

The answer to these challenges is innovation, seen in this case as integration of new and efficient ICT based tools and services into healthcare processes. When addressing innovation in the field of eHealth, I propose to focus our efforts on three main areas of work:

  • bridging the gap between research and market uptake
  • ensuring the right legal framework is in place to boost innovation
  • funding research on personalised medicine

Bridging the gap between research and market while at the same time addressing societal challenges

It is with the aim of boosting innovation that the Commission launched the pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing, in the framework of which we want to turn the challenge of an ageing population into an opportunity; going for a triple win of:

  • enabling EU citizens to lead healthy, active and independent lives until old age
  • improving the sustainability and efficiency of social and health care systems
  • developing and deploying innovative solutions, thus fostering competitiveness and market growth

It is often the case that a prototype, developed from research and even tested in a pilot project, will not make it to the market as a product. To facilitate innovation, we aim to create partnerships between the actors (from healthcare organisations to insurance companies and regional authorities) that are willing to provide their contribution to implement integrated care solutions into daily practice.

Legal framework to boost innovation

In the context of the Innovation Union, it is acknowledged that Member States should conduct a screening of existing legislation in the fields of clinical trials, authorisation of medicinal products, patent protection, processing of health data, public procurement and interoperability.This will identify the rules that need to be improved or updated and/or new rules that need to be implemented in order to provide sufficient and continuous incentives to drive innovation.

In the context of eHealth, and telemedicine in particular, a paper is being drafted in my Unit on legal aspects of telemedicine services. It is essentially a mapping exercise of existing legislation at the EU level and aims to identify open issues and any potential need of further regulation.

The adoption of the Directive on cross-border healthcare this year has marked a turning point for eHealth in the sense that it is for the first time, that eHealth is specifically regulated in an EU legal instrument. It foresees in its Article 14 the creation of a voluntary network of national experts in the field of eHealth. This voluntary network will work on patient summaries and common authentication measures to facilitate transferability of health data across borders.

Research on personalised medicine

Medicine in the future will be patient-centred and will see the advent of personalised medicine. It will aim at better predicting, preventing, managing and treating diseases based on a patient’s individual characteristics (e.g. genome, clinical data, environment).

Two different concepts can be cited that make use of ICT: Personal Health Systems (PHS) and the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH).

PHS come in the form of wearable, implantable or portable tools in the hands of patients or healthy individuals, and are connected real-time with health services. They provide the means to allow early diagnosis of diseases and more effective management of diseases, beyond the ordinary hospital environment and tailored to the response and circumstances of the individual patient.

In the field of the Virtual Physiological Human, our grand challenge is to build a complete computer based model of the human anatomy and physiology at all levels from molecules, cells to organs and systems (also called the “Digital Patient”).

However, to be able to reap the benefits of personalised medicine as a whole we will first have to solve the unprecedented ICT challenges it poses.

The technical challenges relate to secure data storage and processing, knowledge management and visualisation. Bear in mind that the sequencing of a whole human genome corresponds to six gigabytes of data. The processing of these data will help to predict the future development of a patient’s health, thus improving early detection, disease prevention and health management techniques.

The challenges are not only technical. It is also important to ensure that these concepts are accepted by citizens and healthcare professionals and that their costs are reimbursable.

I strongly believe that in Europe we can turn these challenges into opportunities for new businesses and market growth.