European Commission launches e-Health initiative to improve healthcare through the use of information and communications technologies

May 7, 2004

An action plan just adopted by the European Commission shows how information and communication technologies can be used to deliver better quality healthcare Europe-wide. The "e-health action plan" covers everything from electronic prescriptions and

An action plan just adopted by the European Commission shows how information and communication technologies can be used to deliver better quality healthcare Europe-wide. The "e-health action plan" covers everything from electronic prescriptions and computerized health records to the use of new systems and services to cut waiting times and reduce errors.

The proposals will contribute to better care at the same or lower cost. The action plan sets out the objective of a "European e-Health Area" and identifies practical steps to get there through work on electronic health records, patient identifiers and health cards, and the faster rollout of high-speed Internet access for health systems.

To add momentum, member states should develop national and regional e-health strategies to allow measurement of the impact of e-health technologies on the quality and efficiency of services. By the end of the decade, e-health will become commonplace for health professionals, patients, and citizens.

The action plan is the third element of the Commission's recent activities in the health area. The two other activities address patient mobility and the benchmarking of national reforms in healthcare, long-term care, and social protection.

"The challenges facing healthcare in Europe today require a bold response, said Erkki Liikanen, Enterprise and Information Society commissioner. "The greater use of technologies and services - such as the Internet - as a partner in improving healthcare must be encouraged. This plan helps us to do this because new technologies and services make access faster and easier, reduce errors, and improve the effectiveness of healthcare systems. This area that covers both healthcare and e-health technologies is where Europe and European business is strong, and these strengths must be further supported."

Health and Consumer Protection commissioner David Byrne added, "Patients will benefit from the use of information and communication technologies in healthcare. With the adoption of the e-health action plan, yet another element is in place to address the many issues that confront health services throughout the EU. This Thursday (May 6) I will meet with health ministers of the member states at the e-health ministerial conference in Cork, where we will discuss ways to make the most of technology to improve the quality, availability, and effectiveness of care in Europe."

Today, at least four out of five European doctors have an Internet connection, and a quarter of Europeans use the Internet to obtain information about illnesses and health matters. But e-health tools or solutions include products, systems, and services that go beyond Internet-based applications.

Patients need to contact their family doctors, doctors should talk to hospitals, and hospitals must interact with clinics and research centers, all with the aim of providing better care for patients and effective solutions for healthcare systems.

There are numerous examples of e-health in action in the member states. Health information networks, such as Denmark's medcom, support the work of hospitals, pharmacies, on-call doctors, general practitioners, laboratories, and local authorities (http://www.medcom.dk/). It can deliver substantial savings in hospital costs, speed up treatment and diagnosis, and help to reduce the risk of medical errors.

Six million people have accessed the U.K.'s NHS Direct Online in the past two years to find health-related information.

Europe is also at the forefront of the use of electronic health records in primary care and deployment of health (smart) cards, including the recent introduction of a European health card that makes it easier to obtain treatment in other EU member states. Slovenia is a pace-setter in this respect among the new member states. (http://www.zzzs.si/kzz/ang/hic_indx.htm)

European Community research funding has supported e-health to the tune of EUR500 million since the early 1990s, with total investment due to co-financing about twice that amount. Many of today's success stories have emerged from that research. All this has helped to create a new e-health industry with a turnover of EUR11 billion. Estimates suggest that up to 5% of health budgets will be invested in e-health systems and services by 2010.

New and concrete actions will be pursued as part of the action plan:
? By 2005, member states should develop their own road maps for e-health, and an EU public health portal should be up and running to provide one-stop access to health information.
? By 2006, work should be well advanced on key issues such as developing a common approach to data, enabling patient identification, and putting standards in place. All the disparate parts of healthcare networks will then be able to talk to one another and read and exchange patient information.
? By 2008, health information networks should be commonplace, delivering services over fixed and wireless broadband networks and making the most of networks within so-called grids to boost computing power and the interaction between different systems.

This action plan is only part of the EU's response to the broad challenges that health services across Europe face. Two further examples announced in April include action on patient mobility and the benchmarking of national reforms of healthcare systems.


For further information on eHealth see:
http://europa.eu.int/information_society/qualif/health/index_en.htm

For further information on the eHealth Ministerial Conference see:
http://www.ehealthconference2004.ie