European Union: European Commission Adopts e-health Action Plan

Last Updated: 23 June 2004
Article by Jackie Wong

An Action Plan which has recently been adopted by the European Commission shows how information and communication technologies can be used to deliver better quality healthcare across Europe. The "e-Health Action Plan" covers everything from electronic prescriptions and computerised health records to using new systems and services to cut waiting times and reduce errors. It is envisaged that the proposals will contribute to better healthcare at the same or lower cost.

The Action Plan sets out the objective of a "European e-Health Area" and identifies practical steps to achieve this through work on electronic health records, patient identifiers and health cards, and the faster rollout of high speed internet access for health systems to allow the full potential of e- Health to be delivered.

Member States are to develop national and regional e-Health strategies and work needs to progress to allow measurement of the impact of e- Health technologies on the quality and efficiency of services, as well as overall productivity. It is envisaged that by the end of the next decade, e- Health will have become commonplace for health professionals, patients and citizens.

The Action Plan is part of the Commission's response to the broad challenges within the EU health arena. Two other initiatives which were announced recently (see separate article, "Commission Adopts Package on Healthcare") address patient mobility and the benchmarking of national reforms in health care, long term care and social protection.

Today at least four out of five European medical practitioners have an internet connection, and a quarter of Europeans use the internet to obtain information about health matters. However, e- Health tools and solutions include products, systems and services which go beyond simply internet-based applications.

There are already plenty of examples of e-Health in action in the Member States. Health information networks, such as Denmark's medcom, are supporting 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.

In the UK, 6 million individuals have accessed NHS Direct Online (http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk) in two years to obtain health-related information. NHS Direct Online was established in 1999 and provides health information online and access to a 24-hour nurse helpline via telephone. NHS Direct Online has put 200 touch screen kiosks in popular locations (such as NHS centres, chemists, libraries and supermarkets), equipped with printers and accessible to wheelchair users.

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 to facilitate obtaining treatment in other EU Member States. Slovenia is a pace setter among the new Member States in this area (http://www.zzz.si/kzz/ang/hic_index.htm).

European Community research funding has supported e-Health to the extent of E500 million since the early 1990s, with total investment due to co-financing amounting to around twice that sum. All this has contributed towards creating a new e- Health industry with a turnover of approximately E11 billion. According to a recent study,1 e-Health is emerging as a new "industry" alongside pharmaceuticals and the medical devices sector. It is estimated that by 2010 up to 5% of health budgets will be invested in e-Health systems and services.

The action plan is intended to enable the EU to achieve the full potential of e-Health systems and services within a European e-Health Area. There are three target areas:

  • addressing common challenges and creating the right framework to support e-Health;
  • pilot actions to jumpstart the delivery of e-Health; and
  • sharing best practices and measuring progress.

New action points which are to be taken forward as part of the Action Plan include:

  • By 2005 Member States should develop their own roadmaps for e-Health, and an EU public health portal should be up and running to provide a one-stop shop access to health information.
  • By 2006 work should be well advanced on key issues such as developing a common approach to data allowing patients to be identified and putting standards in place which mean that all the different parts of healthcare networks can talk to each other and read and exchange patient information.
  • By 2008 health information 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.

1 Deloitte and Touche (2003) e-Health. Health information Network Europe. Final report.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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