EC officials face skeptics on eHealth details

By Jack Beaudoin
08:54 AM

Facing a sometimes impatient and skeptical audience of clinicians and healthcare IT vendors, European Commission officials say the latest eHealth plans will include concrete proposals to deploy information technology throughout European health systems.

On Monday, EC Commissioner Neelie Kroes and Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez unveiled what is already being referred to as the "Barcelona Declaration" -- a European Union statement for a common vision and policy priorities to ensure that all countries in the region take advantage of information technology to improve healthcare.

"This was a political agreement without precedence, signed right here," said Pablo Rivero, General Director of the Ministry of Health and Social Policy in Spain, on Tuesday. "The Barcelona Declaration now embeds eHealth into all policies" of the EU.

However, the declaration is long on aspirations but short on specifics. There are pledges to improve interoperability, to work on international standards, to develop technologies that lead to a patient-centered healthcare system, and to protect the privacy of citizens. But there was no mention of  budget, nor how the aspirations would be transformed into actual policy.

Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission's Information and Society Directorate, said the details will emerge soon.

"ICT (information and communication technology) is very clearly recognized in the Europe 2020 Vision, which was released last week," he said in a keynote address at the World of Health IT conference. "The Digital Agenda is the transposition of the vision in concrete terms, and eHealth is a key priority in the Digital Agenda."

However, he conceded that the Digital Agenda is a 10-page document that hasn't yet been released to the public. He said he expected that to happen next week.

Stancic seemed to acknowledge a sense of frustration among European healthcare it vendors when he praised the "invisible heroes" – those entrepreneurs, he said, who run small and medium sized ICT companies who have stayed in the market despite the challenging economy and glacial adoption rates.

During questions, it was clear that the invisible heroes hadn't taken much comfort in his words. "Thanks for recognizing us," one audience member remarked. "But how will this help the invisible heroes? Please don't talk about money for research... how do we get [eHealth] products into the market?"

Stancic said the new policies will focus in three areas, with the most important of these being the creation of single market -- a theme Kroes had articulated the day before. A single market is more than a single currency; in the case of eHealth, it must also be characterized by mutually agreed upon standards and governance. Stancic also said small and medium sized businesses should participate in upcoming discussions with other stakeholders, including politicians, patients and providers. Finally, he said that the share of research and development funding for SMEs would increase to 15 percent, up a percentage point or two.

That exchange was followed by a questioner who noted the Obama's administration commitment to fund healthcare IT initiatives to the tune of nearly $40 billion as part of the stimulus, and then asked how the European commitment would look beside that.

"The most important thing they have in the States is not just the funding, but they have a clear strategy, a very clear political mandate, and they have a clear framework," said Rivero, who had met just last week with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and David Blumenthal, national coordinator for healthcare IT. "Let me congratulate, in this forum, the United States for the clear leadership they have taken."

But Stancic disagreed. "What I would like to claim here is that the key achievements in this domain, the deployment of eHealth,are found in the regions and member states of Europe," he said. "When the Americans look to learn, they look at Denmark, Catalonia, Andalusia. They are learning their lessons from us."

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