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The Potential of Telehealth

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 15:13

By Commissioner John Dalli, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy

Telehealth solutions can help deliver better healthcare, to more people, in a more cost-efficient and sustainable manner. Telehealth has the potential to support health systems as they strive for better health outcomes and new models of healthcare. It can significantly improve people’s health and quality of life, and to support independent living of elderly citizens.

The time has come to turn this potential into reality across the EU.  To do this, we need to have everybody on board. This is why I heard with great interest the many ideas and suggestions that stakeholders shared with me during a debate on action ‘Towards an EU-wide Telehealth Strategy’ last November. I wish to comment on some of the ideas exchanged on this occasion.

Several Member States and regions have already paved the way for the deployment of Telehealth solutions. We can all learn from such regions’ experience and knowledge, rather than wasting time and resources “reinventing the wheel”. I fully agree that we should promote the roll–out of such good practice models and support stakeholders in their efforts to remove barriers affecting Telehealth innovation in the EU.

We must also set up the right regulatory framework for Telehealth. The proposed EU legislation on standardisation and on medical devices aims at improving the regulatory framework for ICT technology toward better interoperability and access. It also promotes greater safety and better management of the possible risks of new technologies.

In addition, the Directive on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare foresees co-operation between Member States on eHealth and stresses the need for interoperability between electronic health systems.  I am confident that the new eHealth Network of national authorities set up by this Directive provides an excellent platform for Member States to address a number of open issues related to eHealth and Telemedicine, and to speed up their uptake. For example, the network will identify the minimum set of patients’ data to be made available at national and European levels to help guarantee safe and good treatment at all times, abroad or at home.

In addition, we need to ensure that appropriate incentives are in place to step up the uptake of Telehealth. I am persuaded that the new European Innovation Partnership for Active and Healthy Ageing will further provide encouragement and leverage to support concrete telehealth solutions.

An important factor for the uptake of Telehealth solutions is, as raised by some participants at the debate, the trust and the preparedness of citizens and health professionals alike to use them and to understand their benefits. I have taken notice of the proposals to help health professionals improve their knowledge and skills in the use of ICT technology. This is an important factor that needs to be factored in our health workforce-related policies.

As regards another issue raised – financing of Telehealth innovation – I believe that we should  support smart and affordable innovation that enables the general uptake of technology and that puts technology at the reach of each and every citizen, each and every medical centre and each and every Member State.

Financing health care is the primary responsibility of Member States. The European Union can contribute to exploring sustainable business models for Telehealth innovation. It can also pool expertise and encourage knowledge-sharing, for example on the effective use of ICT technologies through an EU co-operation in health technology assessment.

Telehealth empowers citizens: it gives them access to health information and leads them to better self management of their health condition. It could strongly enhance the integration of health and social care to provide a holistic answer to citizens’ needs. In this regard, the European Commission has made integrated care one of the priority areas of the European Innovation Partnership for Active and Healthy Ageing and the Programme for Competitiveness and Innovation of the EU.

I have only referred to a few of the recommendations which came out of the meeting. I will carefully examine all recommendations within the scope of our actions in support  of a wider uptake of Telehealth at European level. By the end of this year, the European Commission will adopt a new Action Plan on eHealth for 2012-2020. It will develop actions to jumpstart the delivery of eHealth and will encourage the sharing of best practices and measuring progress, on eHealth across the European Union.  I welcome all contributions to this process and count on everybody’s engagement and commitment towards making Telehealth a reality across the EU for the benefit of our citizens.