Before the pandemic, the policy framework for the utilization of digital tools served as the main brake on the healthcare digitization process. This technology had been available for several years but was waiting for more favorable conditions to grow. What was lacking was the favorable regulatory environment and an urgent need to change old habits – reveals a new report “State of Health in the EU,” published by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.
“Going to the doctor” has been replaced by “connecting with” a doctor
In the last two years, there has been a significant increase in the use of technologies enabling remote consultations in the EU Member States. Since the pandemic, the percentage of EU citizens who have had a remote (online or telephone) consultation with a doctor increased from 28.7% in June/July 2020 to almost 38.6% in February/March 2021.
The highest increase has been observed in Spain, with 71.6% of the population having made use of remote consultation. Spain introduced one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe due to the quickly rising number of deaths caused by COVID-19. In Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, and Latvia, the use of telemedicine has increased by 50%.
Public health is highly inefficient without accurate data
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most European countries had already been using digital tools in the public health sector. Without them, the monitoring and surveillance of infectious diseases would not be possible. Their accuracy and accessibility depend on reports sent from the front line – healthcare facilities.
For the first time, mobile apps have been introduced to pandemic surveillance. As a result, contact tracking apps have become a vital component of an effective COVID-19 containment strategy. Public health organizations quickly realized that manual distribution of information concerning the need to quarantine is either unfeasible or highly inefficient.
Through the European Federation Gateway Service, 18 out of 22 national apps have used common protocols to exchange contact tracing keys across borders. At the same time, mobile apps have confirmed decisively that the level of technology adoption depends on social trust.
In a challenging situation like a global pandemic, any tool that potentially reduces the scale of a threat is useful. Has it worked? This requires further research to draw conclusions for the future.
Administrative inhibition of innovation harms patients
Recognizing that digitalization can improve access to medical services during a pandemic, many countries have introduced new, pro-digital legal and administrative solutions. Some existing restrictions have been lifted, including the requirement that the first visit must take place at a doctor’s office. While this approach may have been justified a few years ago, it has lost its relevance today.
During the pandemic, people with chronic diseases could get e-prescriptions for the medicines they needed quickly. The percentage of European residents who reported receiving a remote prescription since the start of the pandemic has increased from 43% in June/July 2020 to almost 53% in June/July 2020.
Most countries have increased reimbursement rates for teleconsultations to the level of a consultation in a doctor’s office. As a result, doctors have invested in better quality equipment and cyber security, which translates directly into the quality of online consultations.
Central infrastructure is essential to bridging the digital divide
COVID-19 has also triggered an increase in funding for public e-health infrastructure. For example, France has allocated EUR 2 billion in investments to implement interoperable, secure software across all healthcare facilities as well as to upgrade the IT systems that support the national digital health infrastructure.
As part of its national recovery plan, Belgium has allocated EUR 40 million to develop a bundle of e-health services. They are supposed to broaden the options for issuing electronic prescriptions, leading to the development of digital systems that support clinical decision-making and increase the use of telehealth services.
COVID certificates – how to combine digital health with privacy
A positive example everyone should draw inspiration from in the future is arguably the implementation of the EU Digital Covid Certificate – a universal document that serves as proof of vaccination, negative test result, or recovery.
The certificate is recognized in all 27 EU countries and also outside the EU. Health authorities across Europe have issued more than 807 million COVID-19 certificates by the end of 2021, with vaccination certificates representing more than two-thirds of these. The easy-to-use certificate, available on a smartphone, has become one of the most commonly used documents that facilitate daily life during the pandemic.
For some countries, the COVID-19 certificate was the first e-health solution implemented. Well-prepared digital infrastructure has proven to enable further services to be launched quickly, depending on the current needs of the health system.