No need to stargaze, digitalisation in healthcare is already here, say health experts

This article is part of our special report Digital Transformation in Healthcare.

Using digital tools to deliver care more efficiently presents a massive opportunity to relieve Europe’s strained healthcare systems, but also carries significant ethical and environmental considerations, EURACTIV heard at a recent event. 

The event, run by the European Brain Council, brought together a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion on the digital transformation of healthcare in Europe, and how to unlock the potential of digital solutions for patients, healthcare providers and health systems.

The digitalisation of health care is set to be a hot topic for the new European Commission, with new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen making clear her ambition to ensure that the next five-year EU legislative cycle harnesses the potential of digital innovation to drive improvements in all aspects of healthcare. 

This included a pledge to create a European Health Data Space and to adopt legislation on AI in the first 100 days of office. 

Furthermore, in a recent speech, the new European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, stated that more must be done on the digitisation of the health sector.

She said it is “very high on the Commission’s agenda” and added that maximising the potential of the digitalisation of healthcare is a key priority in her portfolio. 

Better access to health innovation is Kyriakides' top priority (and hardest task)

With increased powers, Health Commissioner-designate Stella Kyriakides is tasked with striking a difficult balance between making sure there is a steady supply of affordable medicines and ensuring that EU pharma industry remains a world leader in innovation.

Streamlining health services 

Speaking at the event, MEP Eva Kaili from the Socialists and Democrats said digital health holds high potential to allow citizens to benefit from exchanges of information, specifically by helping them avoid additional unnecessary tests, providing information about patient histories, and avoiding the wrong diagnosis or medication.

Digitalisation was also highlighted as invaluable to making the operational side of health care more efficient, such as through the creation of ‘virtual hospitals’.

These simulations are designed to work out the most efficient way to operate the hospital, including the optimisation of allocation of services and beds. The use of technology in this way also eliminated the need for cumbersome logistics work, thus freeing up medical personnel to deal with patients. 

Catherine Estrampes, CEO of GE Healthcare Europe, said at the event that virtual simulations of hospitals have been showing great potential to optimise hospital systems, with trial runs saving 35 beds in one hospital, reducing emergency department wait time by 35% and reducing patient waiting following surgery by 70%.

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

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.

Hidden environmental impact 

However, the widespread adoption of digital technology in the healthcare sector also carries considerable environmental implications.

Greenhouse gas emissions linked to digitalisation are considerable, with large amounts of electricity needed for processing and storing big data, as well as for the manufacturing of computers, screens and smartphones. 

In a recent study, researchers Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi found that by 2040, greenhouse gas emissions from the use of ICT could correspond to more than 14% of today’s total emissions.

Health Care Without Harm, a non-profit coalition, in collaboration with Arup, recently released a report which found that, as it currently stands, if the global health care sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. 

This is only set to get worse with the digitalisation of the sector. There is, therefore, concern that the healthcare sector, by inadvertently contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from its activities, could be undermining the health of the very populations it seeks to heal. 

Speaking at the event, a representative from DG Connect highlighted the enormous environmental footprint of the digitalisation of the healthcare sector, saying that it carries significant environmental ramifications. 

He added that the choice to digitalise must, therefore, include a thorough analysis of the environmental effects to ensure the appropriate use of technology which balances the effects on environmental and human health. 

Ioana-Maria Gligor, head of unit at DG SANTE, European reference networks and digital health, said that this highlighted the need for joined-up politics across sectors.

She acknowledged the environmental concerns surrounding the digitalisation of the sector but stressed that technological advancements can also help to reduce the need for unnecessary tests and procedures by more targeted and efficient diagnosis, thus reducing the number of inessential, energy-intensive procedures such as MRI and CT scans.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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