Europe wants to smash ‘barriers’ to digital health

One of the next hot areas of digital investment is connected health management. The number of apps that help empowered patients take charge of their own conditions is growing, and investors are piling in.

But that growth is uneven. Whilst the sector is taking off in the United States, Europe acknowledges “barriers” remain. So the European Commission has drawn up an “action plan” to improve prospects (release, blog). That plan aims, by 2020, to:

  • specify the structure of patient record data that can be exchanged across borders
  • improved patients’ digital health literacy
  • develop a mobile health green paper by 2014
  • improved the market conditions for ehealth entrepreneurs
  • and more.

Europe will have its work cut out. Every day, I read — on sites like Mobi Health News, Connected Health and GigaOM — about new mobile and web health management products that let patients monitor ongoing conditions, many of which are now being taken on by local health providers in the States. In Europe, not so much…

European digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes

The US health system is considerably more privatised than many others around the world, meaning far greater flexibility and willingness amongst local care givers to offer new technological solutions, and a greater opportunity for technology providers to succeed.

Healthcare in European countries is mostly publicly-funded, and that could lock out the commercial groups that are now developing innovative ideas. The UK’s much-loved public National Health Service, for instance, is beginning to creak under its own weight. My family has experienced such poor care and been given so little information about their conditions that I would rather they had a far greater individual role in their cases.

Apps and services that empowered them with more information and sent that information to trusted providers could improve the situation. Yet government proposals for greater private provision are routinely baulked at by citizens.

Some governments spend up to 15 percent of their budget on healthcare. But this very dependence on public funding — during, what, for many nations, is a time of public austerity — could also be the reason Europe has even more to gain from ehealthcare than elsewhere, absolving hospitals and doctors surgeries of the need to provide face-to-face care all of the time.

European Commission VP and digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, announcing her new action plan, calls it “a win-win for ministers of finance and the patient”:

“Fundamentally, those health systems were designed to deal with a model of acute care, based around stays in hospitals or institutions. That was fine for the 20th century but cracks in the system are beginning to show.

“These days, many health conditions are long-term and degenerative. That trend will continue as our population gets older. People with that kind of condition don’t always need the same pattern of care.

“So we have to adapt, and digital technology is there to help us change. Whether it’s remote monitoring that lets you be cared for at home, robots to help around the house, or simply mobile apps that empower you to take control of your own healthcare.

“There is a leadership gap between ‘eHealth’ technology and patients. The sector has been hesitant to embrace the digital revolution, preferring to stick to traditional methods and models. Politicians have preferred not to upset a system that has worked well in the past.”

Kroes is a one-woman digital beacon for Europe, pulling forward the continent on so many issues, like cloud storage, mobile data rates and audio-visual policy.

But healthcare is a national, not a continental, policy issue. If Kroes’ ehealth plan is geared mostly toward smoothing out national barriers — as so many one-nation European initiatives are — then it will be underwhelming. But if it aims to eliminate the barriers to technology’s entry in healthcare, then citizens should cheer the plan.