How the data wave in healthcare will help improve patient outcomes

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Command Center at Humber River Hospital, US. [GE Healthcare]

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

Healthcare has never been more accessible, intelligent or dynamic. The increased use of advanced data analytics, connected devices, genomics and AI is ushering in a new era with the potential for real breakthroughs in patient outcomes and operational efficiencies across every facet of care. Never before has innovation in healthcare been more digital.

Catherine Estrampes is President & CEO of GE Healthcare Europe.

Looked at another way, however, the healthcare system has never been under more pressure. The growth and ageing of global populations, the rising levels of chronic disease coupled with escalating costs, growing complexity and inadequate infrastructure are forcing a fundamental re-think of every aspect of healthcare – from health policies via care delivery to payment systems.

The new political cycle in the European Union presents a unique opportunity to address some of these challenges together and to create a path for precision health—an emerging approach to health care that is integrated, highly personalized for each patient, and that helps healthcare systems be more sustainable, increase the quality, and improve access for patients. This is especially relevant in the European Union, where national healthcare budgets are under severe pressure and health inequalities still persist from country to country.

A key ingredient to address all of these challenges is healthcare data, which exists in abundance. Today, hospitals are producing 50 petabytes of data per year.1 This includes clinical notes, lab tests, medical images, sensor readings, genomics, and operational and financial data. Yet 97 per cent of this information goes unanalyzed or unused. Too often, important patient data is siloed in different departments, devices, medical records or even hospitals and, as a result, the care team lacks a fully informed clinical picture.

The convergence of biomedical understanding, ever-increasing computing power and the omnipresence of data have paved the way for the development of AI capabilities in almost all areas of life. Especially in medicine, patients and doctors rightly expect that the development of AI is rooted in ethical principles. GE Healthcare’s AI Principles2 is firmly built upon the understanding that AI systems exist to augment human intelligence, not replace it. Through medical imaging, diagnostics, therapy, monitoring and clinical operations, AI has the transformational potential to improve patient outcomes by supporting clinical decision making and freeing up doctors’ and health care professionals’ time to look after their patients.

The European Commission’s ambition to create a European Health Data Space should encourage the promotion of standards for healthcare data to enable interoperability, accessibility and high quality to drive innovation, including through the creation of AI algorithms. At the same time, a harmonized, effective, clear and reliable healthcare data protection framework is paramount to ensure the trust of all operators and patients and meet the challenges of cybersecurity.

Storage, access and use of data are key to unlock the potential that the digital world holds for healthcare. National governments are showing the way with encouraging examples:

  • In Germany, the new Digital Supply Act foresees a more widespread use of electronic health records soon, doctors will be able to prescribe digital health apps to patients, and data governance is finally looked at with a view to making data available for research and improving healthcare.
  • In Finland, the Findata initiative is already now considered as a role model for health data governance in Europe: Anonymised data and a dedicated clearing authority handling access request in a GDPR-compliant manner.
  • In France, similarly, the recent creation of the Health Data Hub is a tremendous opportunity to serve innovation in artificial intelligence in the health sector using a unique data platform.

With the digital transformation in full swing, decision-makers in Brussels and national Health Ministers need to keep in mind that access to timely and high-quality diagnosis and treatments is still inconsistent across the European Union, which was just recently confirmed by the latest State of Health in the EU Report3. In this respect, initiatives such as the Commission’s Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan Cancer are a unique opportunity to create tangible improvements in cancer prevalence and survivorship in Europe. To deliver on the ambitions of better healthcare for all people across the European Union, we need to ensure a robust budget for research & innovation in healthcare as well as funding for healthcare infrastructure via the EU’s structural funds. The physical and digital infrastructure is a precondition for people to get access to the screening programs, medical consultations and treatments they need.

The ambition must be that in 5 years, we should be able to look back and say, we did something for patients across the EU and that healthcare in Europe is not only better tomorrow than it is today but a leader on the global stage.

At GE Healthcare, we are committed to helping Europe succeed on this path. With 16,000 people, across 40+ countries and on 7 research and development sites in the European Union we strive to make all healthcare data count.

1 “The Digital Universe Driving Data Growth in Healthcare,” published by EMC with research and analysis from IDC (12/13)

2 “Can we create AI ethics before we finish creating AI?”, The Pulse, April 2019.

3 “State of Health in the EU: shift to prevention and primary care is the most important trend across countries”, European Commission, 28 November 2019

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