Digital health in Europe: A reflection on where we were and where we are now

Digital health in Europe: A reflection on where we were and where we are now
© iStock/kentoh

Brian O’Connor, the chair of the European Connected Health Alliance, reflects on the growing momentum for digital health in Europe and calls on stakeholders to take further steps towards its deployment.

Ten years ago, I was pessimistic, now I am optimistic. Many will recall the years when all we heard were many presentations which set out only the obstacles to the use of and deployment of digital health and none of the solutions. There is now, rightly, momentum and action on all fronts right across Europe.

Why the change?

There are many factors and, in my opinion, no one decision transformed everything, rather lots of seemingly unconnected decisions, policy changes, investments and consumer pressure combined to change minds by demonstrating the benefits for citizens, industry, health systems and economies.

I give significant credit to the European Commission for the strategic decisions they took, the leadership they showed and the instruments they provided and funded for creating a move away from ‘here are the problems’ to ‘here are the objectives and this is what we can do as the Commission to help’.

Of course, not much of that would matter if countries, regions and leaders only offered words of support; in fact, many countries and regions have been implementing the necessary changes, by for example changing regulations, which allows for the sharing of data, the secondary use of data etc.

The Commission and others have put in place a number of policies and initiatives which undoubtedly are necessary to create the foundation blocks for sustainable, innovative progress. Examples include the funding of the high-performance computer with more to come, recognition of the importance of cybersecurity, AI, blockchain, human genome mapping etc. as key to facilitating the delivery of digital health services necessary to provide over 500 million citizens with access to the benefits they are entitled to.

There are more examples – actions such as GDPR, practical steps such as the recent publication of the European Patient Summary, the collaboration between Estonia and Finland on prescriptions, soon to be extended to another eight countries and many others – which, taken in isolation, may not seem to be very important but, when the dots are joined, reinforce the movement towards the realisation of the Digital Health Single Market.

Through my work in the European Connected Health Alliance and the Digital Health Society I have been fortunate to witness the change in attitudes over the years. I am optimistic because intelligence gained through our Multi-Stakeholder Ecosystem Network has revealed many inspirational leaders, determined to deliver benefits to patients and citizens, overcome obstacles, real or imagined, and, through collaboration across borders, make real positive impacts on individual lives.

We see real actions already delivering benefits to patients and citizens.

We can all have a debate about whether video appointments with doctors are a good or bad thing but realise in the meantime many consumers see them as a long overdue use of existing technologies and tools, and they are embedded as an option in a growing number of systems.

I notice more and more references as well to consumers and citizens rather than only referring to patients. This is a good thing because it brings it home to all of us that we are often all three.

Our interaction with health professionals demonstrates that more and more of them realise that consumers demand the same levels of service and access as they experience in banking, retail, online shopping, travel etc.

You only have to consider who will be the biggest healthcare companies in the future – and I don’t mean the distant future; I mean the next five years. I think Amazon, Apple, Google, Sales Force, Walgreens Boots and many others are already positioning and investing.

Traditional players including Big Pharma know they must change or disappear.

Some stakeholders tell me healthcare is different, suggesting, somehow, that we should carry on as we are. Forget it – much has already changed, almost without us noticing.

Change is unstoppable: influence it, benefit from it, but don’t stand in the way of it.

Consumer power, use of data to focus more on prevention and wellbeing, cross-border collaboration, personalised care plans, technologies etc. mean we need to embrace change and do our best to preserve quality and health standards, but not use them as excuses to hold up implementation.

We are all aware of the many initiatives and programmes. Are we going to leave it to others or are we going to get involved and contribute?

Brian O’Connor
European Connected Health Alliance (ECHAlliance)

Please note, this article will appear in issue 9 of Health Europa Quarterly, which is available to read now.

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