WHO pushes digital technology in EU healthcare

Pushing symbols on a touch screen interface. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report What’s driving Europe’s digital transformation?.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) wants EU member states to focus more resources on e-Health, saying it can empower patients and spark innovation.

More investment in e-Health is necessary if Europe is to achieve its policy objectives, which include reduced health inequalities and more people-centred health systems, according to a new report by the global health organisation.

E-Health involves the use of electronic technology to deliver services and information related to health. It covers a wide range of areas such as electronic records, social media, mobile health apps (m-Health) and the collection of big data for analytics.

“E-Health saves lives and money; yet, despite many inspiring examples of progress, this report makes it clear that e-Health is not being adopted evenly across the region,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe.

“Stronger investment in e-Health is needed in order to achieve the Health 2020 policy objectives,” she added.

In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, many new digital startups focused on health are emerging after the Dutch technology company Philips, Eindhoven University of Technology and other occupational health companies have started collaborating, said Patrick Essers from EIT Digital Eindhoven.

Essers told euractiv.com that startups want to invent solutions that can decrease healthcare costs while keeping the same quality of life for individuals. One challenge they face is to identify solutions that are acceptable to the users from the usability and data privacy perspective.

Health checks by smartphone raise privacy fears

Authorities and tech developers must stop sensitive health data entered into applications on iPhones ending up in the wrong hands, experts warn.

Strong privacy protection

While the WHO would like to see more investment in digital health, it also calls for strong governance and legal protection for users. Weak legislation could lead to not only missed opportunities for health authorities, but also “put lives at risk and leave e-Health open to commercial exploitation”, it warns.

The global health organisation is for example worried that only six countries have a national policy on how to regulate big data in the health sector and its use by private companies.

93% of European countries have made public funding available for e-Health programmes, but 80% have legislation to protect the privacy of individual data in electronic health records.

While 81% of European countries allow healthcare organisations to use social media to promote messages as part of their health campaigns, none of them have a national policy on how to govern the use of social media in healthcare.

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Meanwhile, 33 countries in Europe do not have a regulatory entity responsible for overseeing the quality, safety or reliability of mobile health apps.

“This presents a potential risk for countries and is an area in need of incentives, guidance and oversight,” the WHO emphasises in its report.

E-Health policies have been a priority for the Commission since 2011.

Back then policies mainly focused on institutions and IT systems, but today the focus is shifting and is now being placed on e-Health users who are increasingly becoming involved in the discussion and being placed at the centre of policy-making.

  • 8-10 June: The EU's e-Health week taking place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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