Technology saves healthcare

eHealth Week, European Commission
Artur Olesch, journalist and eHealth expert

eHealth is growing up. A technological trend has been transformed into a mature and experienced field, where it can finally demonstrate a high success rate, the first evidence of effectiveness, and a considerable level of social approval. Public health and other fields of medicine are reaching out to digitisation, as science always requires knowledge and data, which here can be obtained from electronic medical records, monitoring devices and artificial intelligence analyses. Now all we need are new models of provision and refunding of medical services, as well as a legal framework open to innovation.

This year's eHealth Week (Malta, 10–12 May) was dominated by issues of co-operation and implementation, moving from plans and concepts to practice. Data interoperability and the safety of data exchange have recently been discussed extensively, and we realise today that these are the first-line subjects, which will accompany the development of digital health in the next decade. Complete standardisation can never be achieved, and cyber attacks will increase as digitisation progresses in healthcare, as illustrated by the recent cyber attack in British healthcare facilities and which coincided with the conference. We already have the required technological solutions, with electronic medical records becoming increasingly popular. There is no longer any need to wait, as this is the best moment to turn great visions into action.

Reforming healthcare with the use of eHealth tools requires the engagement of all stakeholders. "Together We Make eHealth Happen", as the motto closing this eHealth Week, is not an empty slogan, but a crucial condition for the development of eHealth. It is not an isolated area, with a life of its own, but is part of every medical field and aspect of healthcare. Enthusiasm is needed – a scarce feature in a process of introducing any change. In observing the situation on the market we may conclude that everyone wants change, but nobody wants to change.

I believe that the seven most important take-aways from eHealth Week 2017 are:

1.     Marriage (out of necessity) between public health and eHealth

In her inauguration speech, WHO Regional Director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, made a connection between public health and eHealth, saying that "both areas need each other". In the context of increasing the availability of healthcare, technologies remove the territorial barriers to leading scientific centres around the world in providing highly specialised services, as well as in facilitating access to knowledge, the exchange of experience between specialists, and improving the cost-effectiveness of healthcare systems. eHealth will help to provide care to previously marginalised groups of patients, as it introduces new models of service distribution.

Great ideas implemented by WHO, such as the removal of barriers and inequalities in healthcare or universal health coverage, require a holistic approach to health protection, by moving outside one's own courtyard. The development of eHealth is not driven by the governments of individual countries, but primarily by the companies in the new technologies sector. They are responsible for the mission to transform the healthcare systems, sharing knowledge, and changing those business models focused only on individual profit and competitiveness. They will determine the extent to which eHealth will change the lives of patients, and affect the development of medical science. Technology alone can only provide half of the success, while the other half depends on co-operation and mutual trust.

2.     Working WITH patients, not FOR them

The conclusion from the speech of Christine Bienvenu (Patient Empowerment Foundation Europe) is simple: digital tools provide patients with easy access to knowledge, which supports their independence during their treatment. Bienvenu knows what she is talking about. In 2010, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was confronted with the healthcare system and its shortcomings: a lack of co-ordination and obstructed communication with doctors and access to information. A patient is always on the margin, does not participate in the doctor's decisions, has no control over the treatment, and has no tools to manage a chronic disease. Working with the patient, and not for them, means a partnership, co-decision making and empathy, contrary to the present model where patients are passive receivers of services, registered in the system, inert and sent from one doctor to another, from one facility to another. eHealth could place patients in the centre of the system. Telemedicine, applications designed to monitor the disease and therapy, and online access to data are all tools, which redefine the role of patients in the paternalistic system, and reduce their dependence on depersonalised health care procedures.

Find out what Artur's remaining 5 conclusions from eHealth Week 2017 are in his full blog post here