Ring-ring, it’s time to take your medicine: Telecoms in eHealth

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Depending on where you live, your local phone company is developing technologies to check your blood pressure and sugar level, and will even remind you to take your medicine. 

The market for electronic health technology – eHealth for short – is already worth €15 billion in the EU, and Brussels is trying to remove obstacles and speed up legislation to boost growth in the sector.

The information and communication technolgies (ICT) industry is responding to an unstoppable trend in mobile health devices that help patients to monitor their health, communicate with their doctors and store medical records. 

All that information is relayed over cable and satellite networks owned or operated by phone and TV companies.  

Demand for such services is expected to grow exponentially as the wave of ageing baby boomers puts increasing pressure on healthcare systems. By the year 2050 nearly 30% of Europeans will be over 65.

To reduce the cost and time patients spend in hospital or at the doctor, for example, KPN offers its diabeticStation in Holland, Telecom Italia has the MyDoctor@home service, and Orange has a medication reminder solution.

In Belgium, Belgacom is testing a project for people with heart conditions, while Portugal Telecom and Deutsche Telekom have services for disabled people.

"eHealth is no longer a great business opportunity for the ICT industry, it is also an essential support for the well-being of the population," said Gabriele Galateri, chairman of Telecom Italia, speaking on Tuesday (25 January) at an innovation day hosted by the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association in Brussels.

The eHealth industry will play a critical role in the European Union's digital agenda and innovation union, as well as the European Commission's new Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing. The deadline for public comment on the Commission's pilot public-private partnership is 28 January, and it is clearly high on the EU executive's agenda.

"Our [healthcare] systems are guaranteed to collapse if we don't make radical changes," said Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice-president for the digital agenda.

The Spanish government estimates that health practitioners already spend between 30% and 50% of their time on administration, Kroes said, so "clearly innovation can't come soon enough".

She told the telecoms industry that "now is the time to take positions".

Removing obstacles

But there are formidable obstacles. The wide deployment and adoption of eHealth needs an extensive – and expensive – broadband network, common and harmonised technical standards, updated purchasing programmes, guaranteed protection of patient data, and training for health professionals. 

And of course, there are the money questions: who is going to fund the capital investments for infrastructure or reimburse for telemedicine treatments?

The European Parliament's public health committee on Tuesday (25 January) warned that cuts in health budgets due to the economic crisis could worsen disparities accross the European Union.

Even in countries with healthy economies like the Netherlands, those issues must be sorted out sooner rather than later, because "you can't even reach the [hospital] car park at the moment," said Eric Sijbrands, professor of internal medicine at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.

He said KPN's diabetesStation is one solution to help the 55 million people in Europe with diabetes and the 66 million in the early stages of developing the disease. The machine gathers data on blood pressure, retina scans, body-mass index and images of the patient's feet.

He said 70% of patients can do follow-up monitoring with the diabetesStation and get interactive advice in eight languages.

From France, Pierre Thorel of Orange Labs said the company's medication reminder solution could help the estimated 50% of patients who don't take prescribed medicines properly.

Today, more phones have cameras that can read bar codes on bottles of prescriptions that could contain instructions on when and how much the patient should take. The phone programme, which is being rolled out now, has different ring tones to remind patients when different medicines should be taken, he explained.

For the past seven years, Belgacom has been working on a heart failure project that monitors a patient's blood pressure, pulse and weight. Early indications show a decrease in the number of deaths within the first six months. Primary results will be published this summer. 

Background

eHealth stands for the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) across the whole range of functions that affect the health sector - from the doctor to the hospital manager and from data processing to social security administrators and the patients. The aim is to improve the quality, access and efficacy of health care for all.   

In the EU, eHealth has played a key role in the bloc's eEurope strategy since the initiative was launched in 1999 and followed up by successive Action Plans called eEurope 2002eEurope 2005 and i2010

eHealth is also one of the EU's first six Lead Market Initiatives (LMI) and harmonised health information systems will be required for the smooth implementation of the Cross-border Health Care Directive. 

Regional health networks, electronic health records in primary care and deployment of health cards have contributed to the emergence of an 'eHealth industry', which, according to the European Commission, has the potential to become the third largest industry in the health sector, after the pharmaceutical industry and the medical device and imaging industry.

Among the broader issues to be addressed in the ehealth debate is the question of data protection. One of the pillars of the Data Protection Directive is the safe and appropriate use of data. Winning public acceptance of new health technologies will require consumer confidence. 

Timeline

  • 28 Jan.: Deadline for public comments on Partnership for Active and Healthy Ageing.

Further Reading

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