Healthcare ICT ‘cuts costs and waiting times’

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Patients in emergency departments enjoy shorter waiting times when innovative communications technologies are deployed, according to a study by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

Investing in a state-of-the-art communications system can also boost patient and staff satisfaction and deliver value for money, a pilot project has shown.

Overall, the use of ICT in health care has clear benefits, but doctors and patients need to be engaged from the start and politicians must be more supportive if progress is to be made, concluded speakers at a meeting on eHealth yesterday (22 June) in the European Parliament.

The meeting, hosted by Bulgarian MEP Antonyia Parvanova (ALDE), centred on a recent cost/benefit analysis of ICT investment in health care conducted by ACCA.

Carried out on behalf of the European Commission, the study evaluated the impact of a telephony communication network – fixed and portable handsets – in the emergency department of Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, one of the largest and busiest in Europe.

In an operational review, the emergency department was found to have poor infrastructure, communication problems and an excessive reliance on ageing technologies, all of which affected quality of care. In response, a telephony network was installed in October 2009 with the agreement of clinicians.

So far, the findings have been positive for both doctors and patients, explained ACCA Vice-President Dean Westcott. Patient waiting times have been reduced, patient satisfaction has increased and feedback from staff has been positive. Moreover, indications are that cost savings can made through such investment.

Dr Navin Bedi, a consultant in the emergency department at Nottingham, believes that the key lies in engaging clinical staff ''from the outset''. Richard Tucker, a radiographer, found that the technology actually increased human interaction. ''The new system has the human factor – you ring and can talk to someone at the other end.  This human element mixed with technology supports a more collaborative working environment,'' he said.

Political action at EU level?

Despite the apparent benefits of embracing new health technologies, question marks remain over whether political will has kept up with developments.

In April 2009, the European Parliament supported a proposal for a directive on the application of patients' rights in cross-border health care, which includes measures to improve cooperation between member states on eHealth. Health ministers recently completed their first reading of the proposal in the Council.

In the directive, member states recognise the usefulness of ICT for health care and the need to make progress. Measures include adding data to patient summaries, the collection of medical information for public health and research and identification measures to facilitate cross-border data transfer.

Yet concrete steps at EU level do not seem imminent. Nathalie Chaze, acting head of the European Commission's health strategy and systems unit, sees the amended directive as a ''declaration of intent'' and hopes that genuine cooperation on eHealth can go beyond intergovernmental discussions and become part of the EU's 'Community method'.

Bulgarian liberal MEP Antonyia Parvanova (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) said that the Council and some member states are ''still reluctant and have their worries'' about legislating on the issue, but sees the Commission's proposal as a good start.

''I am very thankful to the Commission for proposing eHealth as part of patients' rights in cross-border healthcare, because we don't have a legal base,'' she said. The MEP also expressed disappointment about the absence of health from the EU's new 'Europe 2020' strategy.

Parvanova praised ACCA's cost-benefit analysis and said that more evidence is the key to bringing about political change. 'I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about ICT in healthcare […], something that is aimed at facilitating the life of healthcare managers, doctors and patients,'' she added.

 

'eHealth' is the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) across a whole range of functions affecting the health sector – from doctors to hospital managers and from data processing and social security administrators to patients.

The aim is to improve the quality, access and efficiency of health care for all.

In the EU, eHealth plays a key role in the bloc's eEurope strategy. This initiative, launched in 1999, was followed up by successive action plans: eEurope 2002eEurope 2005 and i2010.

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