Time to put healthcare at the heart of the digital age

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

Medicine,Doctor,Hand,Working,With,Modern,Computer,Interface,As,Medical [Shutterstock/everything possible]

European healthcare stands at a crossroads. It is time to fully embrace AI and digital technology, argues Jan-Philipp Beck.

Jan-Philipp Beck is the chief executive of EIT Health.

The pandemic has taught us many valuable lessons about what needs to fundamentally change so we are better prepared in the future.

Nowhere is this more evident than the use of digital products and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare.

Meeting the immense challenge of the pandemic has accelerated the use of AI – such as in risk assessment and patient monitoring.

And the evidence of the improvements that can be achieved – in everything from patient outcomes to access to health services – continues to mount.

The European Commission highlighted in April the increasing importance of AI by advancing regulations to ensure Europe is ‘fit for the digital age’.

The Commission’s interest is timely because in healthcare we stand at a crossroads.

We have an opportunity to fully embrace AI and digital tech and realise the immense benefits now and into the future.

Or we can act too slowly and watch as our health systems become inefficient and unfit for the future, buckling under an enormous strain. A world where the latest technological advances can only be accessed by the privileged few lucky enough to have private care.

Life expectancy is increasing, and  so is non-communicable disease, and therefore patients have ever more complex needs. Costs are rising and the workforce is struggling to meet the needs of its patients.

That’s before considering the extra 9.9 million clinicians, nurses and midwives the World Health Organisation predicts we will need to recruit over the next decade.

There is no silver bullet, but AI and tech have the potential to transform how care is delivered and help address some of these enormous challenges.

Technology can help ensure front line staff have more time for actual patient care by streamlining or eliminating up to 80 per cent of routine administration faced by doctors and nurses.

More broadly, going digital can revolutionise the way we manage health, from being able to pool treatment histories from different specialists in one place, to the ‘real time’ monitoring of an individual’s health.

And by embracing technology, we would give companies big and small access to the big data sets that are key to helping create the algorithms at the heart of their ground-breaking healthcare innovations. It would allow Europe to “shape” innovation rather than “take” innovation from the US and China.

To maximise the potential, we need the right regulatory and reimbursement frameworks – and fast.

We must improve pan EU collaboration and exchange of best practice between stakeholders, national bodies, patients and citizens.

We also need to build shared requirements on data exchange, to build trust and transparency, and to create common standards on data collection, privacy and interoperability.

We must begin to allow data to cross borders in the same way we cherish the free movement of people.

Every day millions of people cross borders in the EU, but we are unable to exchange health data, often even between regional authorities. Think of the benefits for healthcare if here in Europe if data could move the same way as people or goods, or even capital.

It would have been invaluable for countries managing their emergency response to Covid by helping to assess resource and capacity, monitor infection rates, analyse epidemiological data in real time.

Speed is of the essence.

Yes, there are sensitives to consider with personal data, and we are unlikely to follow countries in Asia, which tracked credit card data and CCTV to control the virus.

But there are some that are embracing technology with success, such as Estonia, where the health system is entirely digitised and patients control who can access their data via an online portal, which also stores all their health records.

We really are at a turning point, and we have to act.

We must understand the very real, and far-reaching benefits of technology and make it as part of healthcare as tech is in areas such as banking. And we also have to truly contemplate what we will deny society if we fail to unleash its full potential.

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