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Commission sets up task force to redesign healthcare around patients

A joint project by the health and digital technologies directorates aims to break the logjam in adopting ICT, promoting greater patient involvement and easing the flow of medical data for research, EU digital chief Roberto Viola tells Healthy Measures

A new EU taskforce will examine obstacles to the adoption of big data and digital technologies in healthcare, suggesting ways in which member states can use medical information to redesign systems and boost research.   

Within the next three months the team is due to present policy proposals to accelerate the use of genomics data in research and maximise the potential of big data analytics to interrogate health data, reduce lead-times for the introduction of new treatments and enable more personalised health and care provision.

The initiative is borne out of frustration that Europe’s healthcare systems continue to fail to reap the benefits of new digital technologies. Wireless 4G, artificial intelligence and supercomputing could transform care systems - through personalised medicine, independent living or integrated health and social care, accelerating scientific progress, allowing for earlier diagnosis of diseases and more effective treatments.

The scaled up implementation of technologies calls for changes in service delivery - and can redefine healthcare.  Disruptive change is a key driver for the future according to the Commission’s Expert Panel on Health, which advises on effective ways of investing in health. But the Panel has also underlined that disruptive innovations must respect values of universality, equity and solidarity while delivering high quality, effective and safe health services.

The Commission has been behind numerous initiatives to promote eHealth. The difference now is that the task force brings together the digital and health portfolios, and will be jointly-led by Roberto Viola, director-general of DG CONNECT, and Xavier Prats-Monné, director-general of DG Sante.

More than 60 doctors, lawyers and IT specialists will work under their direction, with experts from research, enterprise and regional development fields providing inputs too. 

The panel will study how sharing health data can help tackle major health challenges, such as epidemics, cancer and Alzheimer's Disease, Viola told Healthy Measures. “The more data we have the more we can understand in research,” he said.

Pooling data can yield greater insights – in public health, management of chronic disease, and diagnosis and treatment of rare diseases – but for this potential to be realised, the task force will have to come up with new ways for member states to share sensitive medical information, and suggest ways in which digital technologies can support better patient involvement and control of data, Viola said.

In addition to proposing ways of pooling data for research, the task force aims to nurture “a wide, successful network” of health practitioners and national, regional and local authorities to share intelligence and experience of implementing and integrating eHealth in healthcare systems across Europe.

This will not only consider technical and ethical issues, but will also look at how to drive the uptake of electronic patient records, a move that many doctors have so far failed to embrace.

The cross-border healthcare directive that came into effect in 2011 is intended to allow people to get treatment in any member state. The benefits seem obvious, but continued dependence on paper-based medical records means they are not materialising.

Today, Danes with a thyroid condition carry their prescriptions on a health card, meaning that if they need to see a doctor while on holiday in Spain, they risk the illegible handwriting of their doctor being misinterpreted. Greater use of e-prescriptions would help everyone, but - notable exceptions such as Estonia aside - adoption by member states has been spotty so far.

Healthcare is entirely the responsibility of member states and as ever, the question of to what extent the Commission can drive change is moot. It says that in putting patients at the centre of health and care re-design, the task force will show how technology can support seamless patient feedback, developing “people-powered” health and care systems.

That will help member states define service needs and contribute to continuous improvement of health and care service provision across the EU, according to Viola.

With member states already spending more than 8 per cent of GDP on healthcare on average, and in the face of rising demands, it is important to understand how to get the best value from this significant investment.  Healthcare providers can pick up ideas from counterparts in other member states, says Viola.

One objective is to make sure health records systems can interoperate. “The more health records are digitised, the more it is important that those records are moveable and readable everywhere,” Viola said.

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