European Union outlines 10-year eHealth plan

By Jack Beaudoin
09:08 AM

European Union ministers have unveiled a common vision and policy priorities to ensure that all countries in the region take advantage of information technology to improve healthcare.

"This is crucial. This is what we believe in Europe," said Neelie Kroes, EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda, at a Monday press conference in Barcelona to discuss the Declaration on the European Co-operation on eHealth. "It is a signed document and signals the start of a new era."

In kicking off the eighth Ministerial eHealth Conference this week, Kroes, of the Netherlands, appeared with the Spanish Health Minister, Trinidad Jimenez and the Health Minister of Catalonia, Marina Geli. Because the Spanish now hold the rotating EU presidency, Jimenez serves as the top health minister in Europe and has been a strong advocate for eHealth.

The declaration released Monday outlines a vision and identifies key objectives to be achieved in the next 10 years. These include a call to overcome legal and political barriers to adoption throughout the region, build confidence and acceptance in eHealth tools by citizens and healthcare professionals, ensure the protection of personal health data, solve the technical barriers to interoperability and embed eHealth initiatives in the larger European digital agenda.

While couched in largely aspirational language, the declaration should not be underestimated, Jimenez said. The document sets out the path eHealth developments should take over the next 10 years.

"Time is not our friend. ... Without embracing eHealth, our health systems will simply not work tomorrow," said Kroes. "This is the list of the to-dos."

It's a long list, but not entirely unfamiliar to an American audience. The declaration includes language that would create and support mechanisms enabling information exchange on patient data, professional credentialing and telehealth services; support semantic interoperability and define a medium-term strategy based on existing or emerging EU and international standards; and develop internationally-recognized common standards and certification to facilitate deployment and use in all eHealth applications.

Also familiar to Americans are the questions of how all this will be paid for. The European Commission has spent more than 1 billion Euros and funded 450 projects, but Kroes said it's time for European countries to take up the cause.

"Our finances demand it, our citizens expect and frankly we need more than other the high quality jobs and services the sector brings," said Kroes. "And we need to build a single eHealth market, too."

She took the opportunity to take a swipe at U.S. efforts in healthcare IT, noting, "It is a fact that Europe is a leader in eHealth. Other parts of the globe are trying to get this position, but let's keep it."

In fact, there seems to be a new era of cooperation – or at least interest in cooperation – between Europe and the United States. Jimenez met earlier this month with her U.S. counterpart, Kathleen Sebelius, and highlighted the desire of the Spanish presidency of the European Union to push for a strategic bilateral agreement in digital healthcare.

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