EU health sector ‘up to a decade’ behind others for digitalisation, Commission says

Digitalisation set to “revolutionise” the health sector - but only if regulation keeps pace with innovation. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The EU health sector is in the middle of a defining moment but the sector is “up to a decade” behind other sectors in terms of digitalisation, Deputy Director-General for Health and Food Safety Martin Seychell told EURACTIV.com.

The priorities for the future of the European health sector were laid out in a recent debate, organised by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), where e-health and data protection were named among the key challenges for healthcare in the EU for 2020 and beyond.

The event, which brought together different actors from the healthcare industry to explore how they can collaborate to deliver more for patients’ care across Europe, highlighted that digitalisation was set to revolutionise the health sector – but only if regulation keeps pace with innovation.

Digital tools hold enormous potential to transform the healthcare sector, particularly for reducing inequalities, developing preventative strategies and making health care more personal, offering patients the power to control their own data.

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However, EU regulation is currently inadequate to deal with this digitalisation, causing the EU to lag behind compared to other parts of the world, such as Asia.

Speaking at the event, Commission official Seychell said that in order to adapt to the challenges that the digital revolution will bring to the EU healthcare sector, a “complete redesign” of the current system was required.

He highlighted in particular concerns about data sharing and consumer trust, saying that although data is a “goldmine” for the health sector, it is very difficult to strike a balance between realising the potential of data and protecting patient confidentiality. 

“Regulation must focus especially on the ethical usage of data to ensure that health data is used only for health and research purposes,” Seychell told EURACTIV on the sidelines.

He added that this includes ensuring that health applications which collect user data must be regulated in the same way as all other healthcare providers. 

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Ilaria Giannico, secretary-general of the European Union of Private Hospitals, concurred, asserting that health data is “some of the most sensitive information we have in our hands” but that the current system is fragmented on privacy and confidentiality of data. 

She added concerns that the overall infrastructure and security of the system as it stands is not up to scratch for protecting data and preventing cyber attacks. 

Jurate Svarcaite, director general of The Association of the European Self-Care Industry (AESGP), said digital innovations in health was both a “great opportunity and a great challenge” for the sector.

She said that regulators were still catching up with the advancements in e-health and that there was a lack of “digital and health literacy” in the EU.

She added that there are currently no certification models to provide clarity and guidance for patients, and that clear guidelines are required to build patient trust. 

Nathalie Moll, director general at EFPIA, said that the discovery of innovative medical developments alone are not enough, but that these must be supported by a “whole ecosystem”. 

She said that new treatments were being hampered by the lack of EU standards and that it will not be possible to realise the potential of new innovations without the governance to accompany it. 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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