Europe, US lag developing world in eHealth

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This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.

Despite Europe´s huge broadband coverage and smartphone use compared to the developing world, the continent is lagging in eHealth solutions because costing models do not encourage innovation, the leading global telecoms conference heard yesterday (27 February).

The findings emerged from a key session on health at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – the telecommunications industry´s largest annual gathering.

Experts on provision of eHealth solutions using smartphone applications said that they tried and tested their products in the developing world because billing for eHealth services directly using mobile payments is something better suited to those markets.

Silicon Valley is gone with the wind

“True innovation in mobile healthcare comes from emerging markets, whereas it used to be Silicon Valley, because real need is driving it, and telecommunications companies in emerging markets are really proving that,” George Held, the director of products at the telecoms company Etisalat, told delegates.

His Abu Dhabi-based company operates in 18 emerging markets with 170 million customers.

Don Jones, a vice president responsible for the Wireless Health market at Qualcomm Labs, said the need for eHealth solutions in the West was now pronounced, with pressure on European governments' unsustainable healthcare costs, and consumers more receptive to mobile phone services.

But he added that the traditional model of healthcare in the US and Europe, in which either the state or insurance companies pay for the provision of services to the medical community, provided less fertile ground for development of eHealth.

In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other developing countries, consumers are more willing to self-pay for medical services using mobiles.

eHealth on the verge of breakthroughs, not in Europe

Panellists said the telecoms industry in developed countries, where consumers are reimbursed or costs are paid directly by an insurer, face questions over their business models.

Mobile health solutions are on the verge of huge breakthroughs. Sailesh Chutani, chief executive of wireless health company Mobisant, told the panel that his company's smartphone app – the first mobile-phone ultrasound app to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration – is radically cutting infant mortality in Tanzania by enabling phone swipes to assess the safety of pregnancies.

Chutani told the panel that in the near future there would be an inexorable move toward home-based births presided over by lower-paid medical assistants – a system that could radically reduce mortality in developing countries. But the devices are more likely to find markets and innovations in the developing world, he said.

Richard Moore, an executive with the UK's National Health Service – a purely state-funded model – confirmed that although the UK is looking to develop its mobile health services, it would not consider direct mobile payments to health professionals.

“We do not have the consumer pay model in the UK or systems, where through direct state payments or insurance premiums, consumers are exempt from paying, so how do you deal with that when trying to formulate sHealth solutions using mobile telephony?” said Don Jones, a vice president responsible for the wireless market at Spanish-based Qualcomm Labs.

“We know that in a situation where the physician´s payment is taken care of using government and insurance companies, these providers are looking to develop ways of bundling payments into packages. Eventually that is how eHealth solutions using mobile phones could find a way into the Western markets,” said George Held, the director of products at Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates.

"eHealth is a promising emerging technology that opens new business opportunities for the ICT industry as it brings a new quality of patient care to people… We need to understand the patients demands on services, privacy and security, as well as the regulatory environment to develop a sustainable business model across the industries," said Ralf Kreikamp, CTO Vodafone Business Unit, Huawei.

Electronic health records in primary care and deployment of health cards have contributed to the emergence of an 'eHealth industry'.

According to the European Commission, eHealth has the potential to become the third largest industry in the health sector, after the pharmaceutical industry and the medical device and imaging industry.

The Commission's Digital Agenda for Europe initiative makes eHealth a priority. The agenda aims to provide user-friendly and interoperable information systems for patients and health professionals across Europe.

A new EU task force which met for the first time in Budapest in May 2011 is set to assess the role of information and communications technologies (ICT) in health and social care.

The task force will advise the European Commission on how to unlock the potential of eHealth for safer, better and more efficient health care in Europe and also explore the relationships between eHealth, telemedicine and social policy.

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