Imagine that a Brussels resident breaks his leg on the French ski-slopes. The doctors treating him at the local Alpine hospital can immediately retrieve his digital medical record from the European patient record network, so discovering that he is allergic to a particular kind of painkiller.
Or, think of a woman in her mid 60s, living on a Scottish island, with multiple health problems arising from diabetes and obesity. Despite her remote location, she stays in regular contact with her doctor on the mainland using a specially-designed computer programme. Home-testing kits allow her to monitor her insulin levels and weight for analysis by medical staff.
Information and communication technologies could transform healthcare systems – but much is still in the realms of ambition rather than reality.
The e-health revolution has barely begun. The diffusion of e-health technologies is limited, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission in 2009.
So far, e-health technologies have been restricted to back-office functions and a few scattered projects, and have yet to transform the experience of patient care. But the sector is growing fast: spending on e-health systems was €20 billion in 2009, the equivalent of 2% of healthcare spending across the EU.
The EU institutions are enthusiastic about the potential of e-health to cut costs, improve the patient experience and boost Europe’s ICT companies.
The much-trumpeted “digital agenda” strategy published by the Commission last year argued that e-health would lead to better healthcare and social services, especially for older people and those with disabilities.
The Commission’s goal is that use of telemedicine should be widespread by 2020. It also promised unspecified “pilot actions” to ensure that Europeans had secure access to their own medical records by 2015.
But health systems are a national competence and national governments are sceptical about EU-mandated, one-size-fits-all technologies.
Even within countries, systems diverge. Patients trying to move from one country to another, even from one hospital to another, would encounter different data and laboratory systems that would struggle to ‘talk’ to each other.
A truly interoperable European patient records-system is years away, says Tony Cotterill, the chief executive officer of BridgeHead Software, a company that provides data management services for hospitals in several EU countries.
According to Cotterill, the barriers are not technological, but technical in terms of a lack of common standards for ICT, and political in terms of concerns over data privacy.
In the UK, the public have not bought into big projects, such as electronic patient records, while privacy concerns also remain high in Germany.
“The ability to interoperate exists today…Harnessing the technology, making it secure so that people get the privacy they need, is the key thing,” Cotterill says.