“It’s a document that reflects the high political commitment to e-health and acknowledges its strategic value,” said Trinidad Jiménez, Spain’s Health Minister, in a press conference at the 8th High Level Ministerial e-health conference in Barcelona following the closed-door meeting when the declaration was signed. Information Technology and communications, said Jiménez, are the keys to improving health care delivery, as they modernise and improve its efficiency.
Ehealth covers everything from electronic prescriptions and health cards, to new information systems that reduce waiting time and errors. But besides offering better care to patients, ehealth is also a tool to encourage innovation and competitiveness in the EU, “It’s an industry that improves health care systems, but also creates quality jobs,” Jiménez said.
Giving the opening speech at the eHealth Week 2010 conference, which ran in parallel to the ministerial meeting, Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the Digital agenda, described the declaration as a ‘to-do list’ for European countries for the next 10 years. “It is the beginning of a new era,” she told the 2,000 delegates.
Kroes noted also that commitment in Europe towards e-health is not new. Work began 20 years ago and this has made Europe a world-wide leader in ehealth, ahead of the US.
Despite tracing its roots back over two decades, it was only in 2004 that the European Commission started to give formal support through its ehealth Action Plan, “showing that the political co-operation was possible,” Kroes said. Later, the Commission started to support ehealth deployment via the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme.
As of now, the Commission is financing more than 450 projects in ehealth, worth €1billion.
The most high profile of these projects, Smart Open Services for European Patients, is tackling one of the most controversial and technically difficult issues – but one that is critical to the success of the European e-health area. The aim is to guarantee the compatibility of different electronic health records systems, irrespective of the language or technological platform, without the need to adopt a single system across Europe.
Despite the economic crisis, ehealth is the highest growing market in the health sector, Kroes noted. Electronic health technology is a market worth €15 billion in Europe alone. “But we can do better. That’s why the document has been signed,” Kroes said.
The declaration also calls for the importance of ehealth to be recognised within the framework of the European Digital Agenda, which is due to be released next month. Ehealth has a role in ramping up the EU economy, Kroes told delegates. “I see e-health as a means to achieving economic recovery. This is about new jobs, successful business and taxpayer savings.”
The declaration also recognises the need for more synergies in innovation and R&D policy towards ehealth at a national and European level.
“All that has to do with research and innovation favours the change of economic model in Spain and also in Europe,” Jiménez said. The Spanish Health Minister believes ehealth can act as a powerful cohesion tool in Europe. Spain, together with Denmark, is a European leader in the development of the electronic patient record. For example, Jiménez said, 97 per cent of primary care physicians in Spain already have access to electronic health histories.
Marina Geli, health minister of the Catalan region in Spain, emphasised the importance of the 270 European regions in the construction of the ehealth area, “This is particularly so, given most European states have decentralised health care systems.”
Geli chaired Monday’s 2010 eHealth European Regions Forum where regional health ministers and European commissioners met to discuss the involvement of regions in ehealth. “In countries with decentralised health systems, regions know the practical problems in operating the health system,” Geli pointed out.
While the free movement of electronic health records for European citizens is key to ensuring the creation of the ehealth area, the question that immediately arises is who will be financing it. “It’s not a free lunch,” said Kroes. “Every country has to implement its own ehealth system”. The Commission’s role is to make sure these systems are compatible and favour interoperability.
The sustainability of health care systems in an ageing European society also depends on the deployment of ehealth. “Without embracing e-health our health systems won’t work tomorrow,” stated Kroes.