In recent years, the focus has been on creating digital health care foundations, including technical infrastructure, legislation and interoperability. Patients and health care workers have been gradually getting used to new technologies like electronic medical records, telecare and mobile health apps. This slow social and technological evolution was greatly accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, such that today we are in a completely different place than 2 to 3 years ago.
Online care everybody can access
The “e” is disappearing from “e-health” since some technologies have become a natural part of medicine, similar to other devices that have been available for years.
Digital tools have proved their value, even though it was overshadowed by the general crisis caused by the pandemic. Now, it is up to the decision-makers to harness the full power of digitization. The point is not to throw more digital puzzles into the system but rather to create a new legislative framework for a modern healthcare system based on virtual services, digital therapies, patient engagement and prevention.
What can already be observed is an evolution from a “medical facility” into a hybrid “health ecosystem.” With the current pace in digitization, the proportions between offline and online care will shift in a few years, with the latter prevailing.
At the EIT Health Summit 2022, Lucien Engelen, CEO of Transform.Health, talked about a new trend – for the last few years, the focus was solely on digitization. Still, it is time for retail-isation of healthcare – a shift from large health corporations, like enormous systems incomprehensible to the patients, to ecosystems and health platforms. This entails preparing medical staff for new forms of contact with the patients. If we make sure that digitization is easy for people to use, they will accept it quickly.
Technology accelerates changes on the political level
“Technology that allows us to achieve better treatment outcomes and improve prevention is already available. But we do not dare to change how the health systems work. Politics cannot keep up with what digitization has to offer”, claims Bogi Eliasen from Copenhagen Institute For Future Studies.
Bettina Ryll, the founder of the Melanoma Patient Network, notes that transferring responsibility to patients gives them more opportunities to make decisions about their health. However, it also entails greater responsibility, and patients need to be ready for that. Margrietha Vink (Erasmus Medical Center) has encouraged hospitals to be open to solutions offered by startups, which may be the answer to many problems that medical facilities have been facing for years.
Andrzej Ryś, who represents the European Commission, talked about accelerating the creation of a digital single healthcare market in Europe. Thanks to the legislative proposal to create the European Health Data Space (EHDS), a summary of key medical data will follow the patient in order to improve the standards of care, regardless of the patient’s place of stay. Moreover, Europe will reuse health data, such as for research purposes and to create innovations based on AI algorithms. This gives patients more control over who processes their data and for what purposes.
Patients advocate data sharing
Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, has no doubt that digitization is like air for democracy because it ensures the transparency of the processes and enables everyone to participate in public life and use health services equally.
The patient’s data safety and privacy should always be embedded by default in the data collecting and processing systems. However, safety and privacy cannot be used as an argument to slow down digitization because that means blocking the benefits for patients. And this is already unethical.
Torie Robinson (Epilepsy Sparks), who represents the patient community, has made a direct call to share our data, which can save lives and help sick people and their families. “There is no benefit to data when it is closed in separate databases kept by medical service providers, health organizations and companies.” Thus, data sharing is becoming a new symbol of solidarity for the decentralized health care of the 21st century.
Renaissance of science, acceleration of investments
The development of the mRNA vaccine in a record-breaking time is a huge milestone for medicine. Triumphs are also celebrated by molecular biology, bioengineering and big data, which gives us hope that prevention, diagnostics, treatment and patient outcomes can be improved.
According to Anna Sandström (AstraZeneca), health care and innovations are no longer seen as a cost that needs to be minimized but rather a strategic national good in which we must invest.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on the financing of healthcare. As a result, governments have not only invested a lot in strengthening the overloaded systems but have also allocated funds to the development of digital technologies in an attempt to ensure the continuity of treatment.
What could also be observed was that the healthcare sector was stormed by private investors – in 2021, investments in digital health startups in the USA doubled compared to 2020, reaching the record-breaking amount of USD 29.1 billion.
Jean-Marc Bourez, CEO of EIT Health, pointed out that, in order to ensure the stability of health care systems, EU member states should invest in health together. “We need a strategic public-private partnership and greater awareness of the impact public health has on other aspects of the economy, including economic performance.”
“Patients want access to the best possible care. The lack of system interoperability and e-service reimbursement mechanisms must not stand in the way” – these words by Torie Robinson best summed up this year’s EIT Health Summit 2022.