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Telehealth and its Impact on “Delivered Services – Healthcare Professionals – Patients”

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 15:17

Telehealth and its Impact on “Delivered Services – Healthcare Professionals – Patients”

Peteris Zilgalvis, Head of Unit, ICT for Health, DG Information Society and Media, European Commission

The European Commission has long supported the development of telemedicine services for the benefit of patients, healthcare systems, society and the innovative economy. Our 2008 Communication on the subject[1] concluded that the social and economic benefits of its wider use were potentially huge, however several barriers that were impeding its uptake needed to be overcome before its benefits could be felt on a wide scale. The barriers centred on issues of confidence and acceptance; the need for legal clarity and the technical issues to facilitate market development. With these barriers in mind, the Communication outlined ten actions to be undertaken by Member States, the European Commission and at EU level to encourage its uptake. We now see that healthcare professionals and patients across Europe are slowly beginning to reap the benefits of telehealth services


While some barriers have proved easier to overcome than others, it is becoming clear that we are seeing increased trust and acceptance of the technologies across Europe as small-scale successes are slowing grow into larger initiatives


Notably, in December 2011 a new telemedicine project was launched in Denmark which marks a first step towards establishing a common national infrastructure for telemedicine. Focusing on COPD (emphysema), diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases and pregnant women with and without complications, it provides an opportunity to scale up successful local experiences across the country.


Equally in the UK, a new telehealth campaign called 3 Million Lives has recently been launched. Aiming to improve the lives of 3 million people across the UK through telehealth services, it builds on the success of the Whole System Demonstrator[2] integrated health and social care project, which was piloted across sites in Cornwall, Kent and Newham.


In parallel, large-scale evidence on the effectiveness of telemedicine services is gradually emerging. Later this year, a pan-European project “Renewing Health”[3] is expected to provide evidence of the effectiveness of telemedicine services. Working across nine of the regions of the EU which are most advanced in this domain, it will focus on three chronic conditions: diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases (CVD) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).


The social and economic impact of these three diseases is enormous: CVDs are the largest cause of death in the EU and account for approximately 40% of deaths or 2 million deaths per year.[4] According to the WHO[5], deaths in Europe from COPD are expected to rise by about 20%, from 248 000 in 2008 to more than 300 000 in 2030; deaths directly attributable to diabetes are predicted to rise from about 166 000 in 2009 to over 209 000 in 2030.


Telehealth services can be particularly beneficial for older people who may have restricted mobility. For this reason, the European Commission is encouraging, through its European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing, a stakeholder driven approach to bring the benefits of telemedicine – among other technologies – to older patients with a view to helping them live longer and more active lives.


The EIP on Active and Healthy Ageing will work to enable EU citizens to lead healthy, active and independent lives while ageing; improve the sustainability and efficiency of social and health care systems; boost and improve the competitiveness of the markets for innovative products and services. Its overarching goal is to increase the average healthy lifespan by two years by 2020. To achieve and measure this increase, it aims to put in place better measures to prevent and manage chronic diseases, build up innovative and more integrated care systems, and develop and – importantly for telemedicine – deploy innovative products and devices specifically aimed at elderly people. This economy sector has a strong representation of SMEs, so mobilising it will also serve to improve the prospects of Europe’s SMEs and to reduce youth unemployment.


The blueprint to achieving the EIP’s goals is the Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP), developed by the EIP’s Steering Group. The plan sets out specific actions which have led to invitations for commitment in the following areas: Innovative ways to ensure patients follow their prescriptions – a concerted action in at least 30 European regions; Innovative solutions to prevent falls and support early diagnosis for older people; Co-operation to help prevent functional decline and frailty, with a particular focus on malnutrition; Spread and promote successful, innovative models for integrated care for chronic diseases amongst older patients, such as through remote monitoring; Improve the uptake of interoperable ICT independent living solutions through global standards to help older people stay independent, mobile and active for longer.


The potential for telemedicine in this plan is significant as it builds on the desire among patients and healthcare workers for safe, quality, efficient and effective interactive healthcare solutions; the belief among businesses in the market potential of telemedicine; and the growing consensus among governments that high quality and sustainable universal healthcare depends on efficient and economical solutions. In practical terms it also means that stakeholders across Europe will be able to build upon existing best practice to bring the benefits of telemedicine to their elderly population.


The current economic climate, where individual actors have less to invest, makes the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing an even more attractive prospect. We strongly encourage stakeholders to get involved and start the ball rolling towards increased healthy life-years for our ageing population, improved social and health care systems and reinvigorated economic activity in this innovative area.