Using digital technology in healthcare has transformed the way we use health data and health information. Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare has become more data driven, while health practitioners are able to use data and technologies to speed up and increase the efficiency of health services. But what exactly is digital health technology?
For every person born today, a medical file will be created to record and collect their health information. Fifty years ago, this would have been a physical file in one hospital or one doctor’s cabinet, containing the original paper documents and hand-written physician’s notes. Fast-forward to 2020, the combination of digital technology and healthcare makes it possible for each person to have a single digital medical file, where multiple healthcare providers can access and store digital copies of the patient notes and results from scans and tests, which can be edited and added to for years to come.
‘eHealth’ describes the use of digital technologies in healthcare across all areas, from the patient at home and the family doctors’ surgeries, to the hospital environment and even cross-border health features. This goes beyond applying ICT solutions to traditional practices, creating new value for the patient and health providers by finding new solutions through digital means. For example, the introduction of the computer into hospitals was a big transformation. This allowed nurses and doctors to speed up the time taken to write and file patient notes. Now, computers in hospitals not only serve to support traditional practices, but to create new value, such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for screening test results, or the COVID-19 contact tracing apps which rely on a new blend of digital tech and health data.
“Never before has it been so important to apply the power of digital technology to the health services in the EU and the EaP regions. eHealth solutions are being used to create better and more efficient healthcare systems for both patients and professionals,” says Martynas Daugirdas, eHealth Stream leader in the EU4Digital Facility.
In a tangible way, eHealth has the ability to empower patients and facilitate healthcare interactions. This translates as the ability for people to book their doctors’ appointment online, hold an electronic health record, access digital prescriptions, or use wellness and health monitoring digital applications on their phone. These allow citizens to be more involved in their patient journey, and to have access to resources in a quicker way than previously.
The health practitioner is able to respond to the healthcare needs of the patient in a more personalised and precise way when using digital health systems. Less time is spent on filling in forms and the duplication of clinical procedures is avoided, with the health professional able to access the patient’s health data in electronic format. It also provides new opportunities for control and supervision by health professionals, such as a better overview of the history and type of prescriptions per patient.
eHealth is closely linked to interoperability, which seeks to remove barriers to enable cross-system communication and exchange. This means different systems being able to understand and interpret shared health information correctly. In the early phase of computing and digital, the multitude of different operating systems meant that one computer or medical device would not be able to communicate with another, leading to time lost in analysing and transferring data. Today, most digital systems in the EU have become standardised, meaning that data can be transferred from one machine to another, saving time and effort. This enables mobility of data, meaning that a patient is no longer bound to the one physical paper file in one hospital, but can take their health data to any hospital in any country, where it can still be read by their digital systems.
Under the EU’s Digital Single Market policy, the development of eHealth is seen as a key area of digital transformation. An example of solutions being developed in the EU is the use of electronic prescriptions – or ePrescriptions – which empower the patient to access prescribed medicines without having to collect a paper form from the doctor. Thanks to interoperable systems and digital health records, pharmacies are able to validate the prescription more easily and limit the administrative paper trail.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced the importance and need of digital health systems in Europe and the Eastern partner countries. With restricted physical meetings or travel, citizens looked towards new ways to interact with their healthcare providers. Patients in some countries were able to use telemedicine to consult medical practitioners from a distance through a phone call, or the internet for advice or prescriptions. This was particularly useful for patients who suspected they had been infected with COVID-19, as the doctor could talk through the symptoms at a distance and not risk further spreading the disease.
A leading European expert in digital health, Professor Henrique Martins, further points out that “this pandemic has shown all professionals and managers alike who were sceptical of eHealth, that the paper-based, doctor-centric model supported by old physical facilities, needs to evolve to a Digital Healthcare System urgently.” Even if changes may be more limited in the midst of a crisis, the momentum will continue and will require a solid strategy.
In the Eastern partner countries especially, the pandemic helped to bring attention to the needs for further use of digital tools in traditional medical environments. However, the pandemic also had a delaying effect on the more difficult aspects of advancing eHealth solutions, such as defining common standards and definitions to allow for interoperability of digital tools. Other important considerations have to be made to ensure the well-functioning and uptake of these digital tools in the EU and the Eastern partner countries. These include attention to data privacy and confidentiality, in line with data protection legislation. It also means ensuring the security of the systems in place, so that the data is protected, and only trusted systems and individuals can access the data.
The combination of digital and health has provided new opportunities and solutions for patients and health professionals and will continue to transform traditional healthcare. We continue by examining the future opportunities, solutions and challenges of eHealth in the EU and the EaP in the following article available here.
The European Union, through the EU4Digital Initiative, is working with the Eastern partner countries to support the development of national frameworks for eHealth and harmonised systems among the EaP and the EU. To read more about the objectives and progress made in eHealth, visit the eHealth thematic page.