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Submitted by on 07 Oct 2011 – 13:24

E-HealthJohn Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy

Each and every European should have access to safe and good quality healthcare.

As the population grows older, the burden of chronic conditions is likely to grow with it. Conditions such as heart disease, or type 2 diabetes, already account for around 70% of healthcare costs.

As Europe gradually ages in these times of austerity,  there is a significant role to be played by developing innovative solutions in health for the benefit of patients and health professionals, and the sustainability of health systems.

Investment in health innovation is key to achieving this. The health sector has tremendous potential for innovation, such as eHealth, which can improve the quality of healthcare; increase the efficiency and availability of health systems; and support patient-centred health systems.

For instance, eHealth can improve access to diagnosis and treatment – particularly for rare conditions where expertise is scarce. By concentrating expertise in a few centres connected to the whole of Europe, it is possible to move the knowledge without having to move the patient.

Telehealth can also help health professionals access  patients’ essential data in an emergency. It can also help patients access the best medical expertise from the comfort of their own home. This can be enormously beneficial for the elderly or less mobile, or even for those living in remote areas.

By moving some routine checks from hospital to home, eHealth can help reduce hospital admissions and thus free up the precious time and resources of health professionals and, at the same time, improve patient’s comfort and control over their own health.

Yet there remain a number of barriers to the use of eHealth across the European Union.

eHealth requires profound changes in healthcare as we know it, with less need for face-to-face interaction. Yet not every doctor feels comfortable liaising with patients via a computer screen. They need real incentives to overcome this barrier. In parallel, not every patient feels comfortable being diagnosed or advised by a doctor online.

There are also structural barriers, in particular the lack of interoperability or compatibility between health systems. In other words, health systems in the European Union are still unable to “speak” to one another.

The European Commission is committed to promoting the uptake of eHealth through a range of co-ordinated measures accross the European Union.

The new EU Directive on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare encourages EU Member States to work together, through the eHealth Network, on a minimum set of data for patients’ summaries to be shared between health professionals. Member States will also work together to pool data on public health and medical research, notably through patients’ registries, which remain fragmented across Europe.

Next year, building on lessons learnt with the previous Action plan, and on advice from the eHealth taskforce, the European Commission will adopt a new Action Plan on eHealth for 2012-2020. Our aim is to help create the right framework to support e-Health and to develop pilot actions to jumpstart the delivery of eHealth solutions. The Action Plan will further foster  the sharing of best practices and the assessment of progress made so far on eHealth across the EU.

So far, the EU has invested over a billion euros in research and pilot projects to develop eHealth to treat people and to keep them healthy, active and independent. It is important to show how such investment can trigger efficiency gains that help secure the quality and sustainability of health systems.

This is where health technology assessment, or HTA, has an important role to play. HTA helps to ensure that eHealth technologies are chosen and used in the most effective and efficient way. This means showing that eHealth can be more effective than conventional treatment; and that the benefits outweigh the costs.

I believe in maximising the potential for innovation in healthcare – not because innovation is trendy; not because innovation is an end in itself; but because it is a means to advance the cause of European health and a means to drive forward the economy on which we all depend.

This is why making eHealth a reality for our citizens is at the forefront of European health policy.