eHealth Key To Europe’s Economic Recovery

Innovative IT will give citizens more control over their own health management and help cut costs and generate jobs, the EC believes

Using technology to improve and cut the costs of health services will help Europe recover from the financial crisis and tackle the problems posed by an aging population, the European Commission believes.

Speaking at the eHealth 2010 Conference in Barcelona this week, EC commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes said that new technology will be key to helping cut down health care costs in the region as well as generating new jobs and revenue.

“Latest research indicates that 29 percent of the EU’s population will be over 65 years old in 2050,” said Kroes. “And we are battling the deepest financial crisis in decades. These facts are not news – but combined, they tell us that great innovations will be needed to keep people healthy and comfortable in the coming decades.”

As European states continue to struggle with the effects of the financial crisis, one of the key themes is improving efficiency, explained Kroes. “The grand theme of our time is the need to do more with less,” she said. “Improving eHealth systems is one of the best ways we can address this challenge.”

The EC believes that giving citizens more control over their own health management is key to cutting costs in the sector and driving innovation. “Already today, people go and look for health information on the Internet – often before they even speak to their doctor. Some say we should fight this trend; I say we should make the most of it! Simply, patients must now find their doctor on the Internet. And the proof that this works is in our early success with telemedicine,” said Kroes.

David Cameron
David Cameron

The idea that IT should be used to give patients more control over their own health information is an idea that has been championed by the Conservatives in the UK. Last August, Tory leader David Cameron said that the technology could be used to revitalise the NHS and improve care. “As patients, we want to know we’re getting the best possible care; as taxpayers we want to know we’re getting value for money: technology, well-applied, can create opportunities for both in a decentralised NHS,” he said.

The Conservatives have said the government should abandon an ongoing project for a centralised patient health care records in favour of using existing systems developed by the private sector such as Google Health and Microsoft Health Vault. The Conservatives have been criticised by some commentators for backing Google’s technology due to the fact that Tory advisor Steve Hilton is married to Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice president of global communications and public affairs.

Kroes was also keen to point out that the economic benefits from eHealth go beyond cost savings and extend into the potential for job creation and new businesses. “I also see eHealth as a means to achieving economic recovery. eHealth is the fastest growing part of healthcare. And ICT is one of the main innovation factors of the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries – two industries traditionally strong in Europe. So this is also about new jobs and successful businesses, and taxpayer savings. eHealth builds on two of the best assets of Europe: its health systems, and its technologies,” she said.

Late last week, the EC announced its future strategy for Europe – Europe 2020. According to Kroes the digital chapter of the report – Digital Agenda for Europe – will be released next month with eHealth playing a central role in the plans.  “It will be our vision of how ICT can shape Europe by 2015 – and be assured that eHealth will play an integral part of our ambition to make Europe a truly sustainable digital society,” said Kroes.

The UK government has made some in-roads into innovative eHealth services including an online hospital rating service which it claims “hands more power to the patient”. The government claims the online tool works in a similar way to other comparison sites on the web, used to rate flight costs or car insurance for example. The service should make it easier for people to compare hospitals for criteria such as mortality rates, cleanliness and staff performance.

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