EU health chief: ‘eHealth is no science fiction’

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New EU laws allowing patients to travel across borders for health care will be crucial to putting in place the legal framework for the development of e-health services in Europe, according to EU Health Commissioner John Dalli.

Maltese national John Dalli is European commissioner for health and consumer policy.

He was speaking to Gary Finnegan.

To read a story that draws upon this interview, please click here

What benefits can you see in adopting eHealth technologies?

We want to put patients' rights, patient safety and access to health services at the heart of policymaking. eHealth is a tool for delivering all of this, which is why I've made innovation in health care a priority. eHealth can help make health systems more efficient and give patients access to expertise from anywhere.

How can eHealth help ensure patient rights?

Information technology helps move forward some of the solutions sought by patients in terms of services.

Technology will save health professionals' and patients' time. If the results of medical examinations and tests can be shared between hospitals, then a patient will not have to repeat the same tests when he goes to another hospital. This saves time and resources.

We can have a few centres of excellence specialised on specific issues accessible to those who do not live nearby. For patients with rare diseases this is particularly important. We can have focal points of expertise that can then deliver services to all corners of Europe.  

eHealth solutions can also help to protect patients' rights to safety when suffering from chronic diseases where monitoring can become relatively simple and quick, thus avoiding complications.

There is plenty of new technology available but most hospitals have not embraced it. What needs to be done to make it a reality for patients?

This isn't science fiction – the technology is already here waiting to be used. It's time to step up from just talking about it to embracing eHealth. Some regions and member states are doing a lot in the area of eHealth but for others, uptake has been modest.

What is holding back progress?

The key problem is lack of interoperability. Systems must be able to speak to one another within hospitals, between hospitals and ultimately across borders. Political will is needed to make eHealth a reality. Member states are responsible for health but we must bring people together to discuss cooperation if we want to make the most of eHealth and cross-border collaboration.

We need interoperability and information exchange in order to ensure continuity of care and safe emergency care delivery. I believe interoperability can come about without infringing on national competence in the area of health. I will also seek to embed eHealth in the new innovation partnership on healthy ageing announced by the Commission last week.

What role does the Cross-border Healthcare Directive play in developing the legal framework for eHealth?

It's important and I hope the consensus reached at the end of the debate will deliver an effective way forward for us in terms of the legal framework.

Are you confident that investment can pay off in the long run?

When investing in healthcare, sustainability is essential. In economic terms, e-health can help make savings by cutting out duplication of work and reducing the travelling costs for patients. That's on top of the qualitative societal benefits it will bring for service users.

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