Digital education, encouraging collaboration and financial support to connect rural areas are among the actions still needed for rural areas to benefit from digital health opportunities.
Access to essential public services such as healthcare remains a challenge in rural and remote areas already affected by a declining and ageing population, a lack of connectivity and infrastructure.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these issues and emphasised the need to develop long-term health access in rural areas vision, it has also cast a light on emerging opportunities to achieve this objective thanks to digitalisation.
In a recent event, Vodafone Greece CEO Haris Broumidis said that the pandemic “was a digital acceleration” while vice-president worldwide government affairs & policy at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Zeger Vercouteren said that the “COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated many of the benefits of digital health and has sparked an increasing public demand for efficient tools”.
During the pandemic, there were 40% fewer in-person meetings in hospitals, 60% more virtual training of healthcare professionals and 53% more patient appointments done using telemedicine and video conferencing, according to data mentioned by J&J’s Vercouteren.
“Healthcare systems now have an opportunity to learn from this experience that was imposed on us and accelerate further healthcare digitization,” he said, adding that this is a momentum not to miss.
Speaking at the same event, Commission vice-president for democracy and demography Dubravka Šuica said that “in today’s world, digital connectivity is as vital an infrastructure as water provision and this is particularly true in the area of e-health services.”
The Commission took actions in this regard, also included in the EU4Health programme for strengthening the resilience of health systems.
In the Commission’s pipeline, there is also the proposal for an EU health data space addressing health digitalisation in rural areas.
According to Tomislav Sokol, Croatian Christian-democrats MEP, there are many regulations and directives that are already in place and need to be improved, but also new legislation that is being worked on now and that will make the difference once adopted.
For him, the EU health data space is “probably the most important current regulatory initiative in healthcare, because it resolves the problem of using data across different member states”.
The Commission’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas unveiled last June acknowledges the difficulties rural populations are facing, including those related to access to health, and aims at helping rural areas in overcoming these challenges by leveraging both the green and digital transitions.
The flagship initiative of this vision called rural digital futures “proposes an integrated set of actions to boost the sustainable digital transformation of rural areas,” said Commissioner Šuica.
“In addition, a rural observatory will be set up within the commission to further improve data collection and analysis on rural areas,” she added.
Šuica mentioned that next year the Commission will publish a toolkit on how to make full use of the opportunities offered by post-2020 EU funds by combining EU funds for projects on digitalisation of rural areas.
What the (rural) world needs now
For J&J’s Vercouteren, this is “just the beginning” of technological growth and more cooperation and coordination between healthcare providers is needed. Additionally, limited integration of health and social care services needs to be challenged.
He highlighted the importance of digital literacy: “first, the EU should guarantee that its citizens are equipped with the right digital skills to foster public trust and understanding of digital health tools”.
However, Stanimir Hasurdjiev, chairperson of the Bulgarian National Patients’ Organization (NPO), stressed the need for solutions that would not need digital literacy to ensure equal access to healthcare.
“The best technology we can have is that technology that doesn’t require any health literacy from the person who interacts with it,” he said.
Hasurdjiev explained further that anyone who has never touched a computer or telephone should be able to interact through a natural way, for instance through the voice.
Vodafone’s Broumidis also mentioned the importance of funding to connect rural areas since, in most cases, massive deployment of next-generation access networks there does not make financial sense at the moment.
“That’s why it’s absolutely critical to receive significant financial support from the government,” he said.
He added that a wider mix of policies are also needed that will encourage collaboration, create more sustainable business models and ensure a massive and fast deployment of new networks in those areas.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna]