Pandemic puts telemedicine and data access in the spotlight

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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What a dramatic difference a few months can make. At the beginning of 2020, it was hard to imagine that a worldwide health and economic crisis would develop so rapidly and cause a dramatic global shock.

The long-lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to transform society and will for years to come. The resilience of healthcare systems is being tested like never before, and systems have been brought to the brink of collapse in many countries. As the pandemic unfolds at different rhythms across the world, digital health has decisively come to the fore.

Digital health refers to tools and services that use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve prevention, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring and management of health and lifestyle.

From electronic health records to telemedicine, from artificial intelligence for clinical diagnosis and research to wearable sensors, digital health spans a vast number of applications and is constantly growing with new technological and scientific advances.

Governments across the world, and particularly in Europe, are looking at digital health with a renewed sense of urgency. Telemedicine and access to quality health data have become increasingly important throughout the pandemic, providing a lifeline to patients and healthcare workers.

Telemedicine

At the start of 2020, healthcare systems didn’t plan to substantially increase the use of telemedicine. The technology has been ready for prime time for years, but its widespread adoption has been slow, constrained by regulatory barriers and a resistance to change long-established approaches to healthcare delivery.

Then came COVID-19. As the strain on hospitals increased, patients were delaying being seen by doctors for fear of contagion. Through telemedicine, healthcare providers could engage with patients virtually, limit overburdening the onsite staff and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

During the crisis, the global use of telemedicine has skyrocketed. In France, use of telemedicine services increased by 40%, while Belgium started reimbursing several telemedicine-based clinical procedures.

In Germany, Health Innovation Hub published a list of trusted telemedicine services, resulting in a substantial increase in doctors interested in using telemedicine.

The United States has seen the most rapid growth of telemedicine. A recent analysis by McKinsey revealed that 46% of consumers are now using telehealth to replace cancelled healthcare visits (in comparison to 11% in 2019), while healthcare providers are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before.

Despite these clear benefits, many of the regulatory changes that triggered telemedicine expansion are temporary and limited to the duration of the pandemic. Without permanent changes to regulatory barriers, many of the valued telemedicine applications being used today could be meaningless tomorrow.

We cannot afford to revert to previous restrictions on telemedicine. Doing so would be a major setback to the state of care and be met by consternation from healthcare professionals and patients alike. We must lift these restrictions to telemedicine permanently to enable better healthcare outcomes.

Access to health data

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on across the world, increasing access to health data has become even more necessary and critical.

Access to health data can increase the efficacy of technologies being used to fight the virus by identifying signs and symptoms, tracking the spread and monitoring the availability of hospital resources. The pandemic has illustrated that we must maximize the value of health data without compromising patients’ privacy.

As the first coronavirus cases were identified in Europe, the European Commission published A European strategy for data, where the realisation of a European Health Data Space (EHDS) “would foster the exchange, and sharing of different kinds of health data (electronic health records, genomics, registries, etc.) in Europe. Thus, supporting the delivery of primary care, as well as, the development of new treatments, medicines, medical devices and services.”

As member states and the European Commission consult with stakeholders about the most adequate governance principles and the technological and organisational infrastructure for the EHDS, patients must better understand how, when and why their data will be used.

In the discussions of how to achieve the best balance between protecting individual’s rights and promoting the EHDS, there are three actions that should be pursued:

  • Move beyond consent as grounds for non-interventional secondary use of health data (e.g., public interest, research).
  • Protect health data with a mix of de-identification (pseudonymisation, anonymisation, aggregation), processing controls (e.g., data use agreements, reference methodologies) and safeguard procedures such as internal ethical boards.
  • Foster technical solutions to safeguard patients’ data through Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (e.g., federated learning, trusted execution environments, homomorphic encryption).

Europe has an opportunity to enable the right policy steps to increase access to health data and enable telemedicine and AI for healthcare to flourish. While no one knows how or when the pandemic will end, it is imperative that Europe continues to advance digital health to improve lives.

In an effort to boost digital health and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Intel has contributed $50 million through a pandemic response technology initiative to accelerate access to technology at the point of patient care, speeding scientific research and ensuring access to online learning for students. This effort is global and in Europe, it builds on the broad engagement that Intel has been developing through the years.

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