The Covid-19 pandemic has given powerful impetus to the digital transformation of health and care
by Dr Roberto Viola, Director-General, DG Connect, European Commission, Brussels
Digital technologies promise to make the work of medical personnel easier, including during a pandemic. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that data and digital technologies are key for both the EU’s and its Member States’ responses to sudden and severe health threats. Today, health is not only about having good doctors, but also about how the use of data and technology can complement their work, now and in the future. But first of all, we are immensely grateful for the efforts of medical personnel during the Covid-19 crisis, who went beyond their call of duty and saved so many lives while putting their own lives on the line.
One of the greatest challenges we face today is to identify treatments and develop as quickly as possible safe vaccines against the new coronavirus. For this, the use of large volumes of health data, from electronic health records to digital information on drug molecules, combined with technologies such as artificial intelligence and high performance computing, are proving to be very effective.
The race to find safe treatments: In the race to find effective, safe treatments, the EU is a leading contender using its
supercomputers to accelerate the search. One example is
Exscalate4CoV, an EU-funded project that uses high performance computing to analyse large databases of known molecules, to find candidates to (re-) use against Covid-19. It already has promising first results. The use of data and technology has reduced this search from years to a matter of months.
Digitally powered contact tracing: Another tool in combatting pandemics is digitally powered contact tracing. Right now, the Commission and Member States are working together to develop secure, mobile contact tracing applications and to ensure that such apps work across borders in the EU. 19 apps are currently operational or being developed and an EU gateway will soon be put in place to connect them.
Fully anonymised and aggregated mobility data: Furthermore, as physical distancing and mobility restrictions can effectively contribute to save lives, the Commission asked European mobile network operators to share fully anonymised and aggregated mobility data to map mobility patterns to help understand the dynamics of the pandemic. This data can then be used to measure the effectiveness of containment measures and tailor them better to local circumstances.
Telehealth technologies: The pandemic has also spurred change in other areas of healthcare. One example is the use of telehealth technologies, which have seen a rapid uptake across the EU. These technologies enable citizens, such as those with chronic conditions, to maintain active contact with doctors while remaining safely in their own homes.
Digital health: from now to the future
Before the pandemic, digital technologies were already helping citizens and physicians achieve better health outcomes. They were being used to enhance clinical care (for example in radiology diagnostics or robotic surgery), enable the remote monitoring of patients through health apps, and improve the efficiency of hospital supply chains. Such developments are only the tip of the iceberg – as the accessibility of high-quality health data improves and computer capacities and data connectivity grow, greater improvements are in store.
Better accessibility of high-quality health data will better equip physicians to make the right call as regards treating their patients, thus leading to better health outcomes. Better accessibility to data will also empower citizens and grant them better control over an increasingly sensitive and precious resource: their data.
Greater computer capacities and better data connectivity will also drive efficiency and help tackle the estimated one-fifth of EU health spending currently deemed wasteful1. Moreover, the hope is that with these new technologies, disease prevention will become the norm instead of costly hospital care. This is of particular concern as Europe’s population ages, and we need to find innovative and sustainable healthcare solutions that protect people’s dignity.
Such changes in healthcare technologies will also yield opportunities for the EU’s research and innovation community. Before the pandemic, analysts predicted that the global health data market would increase from around $14 billion in 2019 to $50-60 billion in 2025. Such an expanding market creates opportunities for European companies, which are already often leaders in their respective market domains.
To support these changes and developments, the Commission has outlined its approach to promote the digital transformation of health and care in the EU in a strategy adopted in April 2018. Many European funds, programmes and tools are available to help companies seize the opportunities arising in the healthcare domain as a result of digitisation. For example, the Commission will co-finance, in collaboration with Member States, the creation of testing and experimentation facilities for digital healthcare solutions, alongside the existing network of Digital Innovation Hubs that support regional digital ecosystems.
Exchanging secure health data
One of the greatest achievements of the European project has been people’s ability to move, live and work wherever they wish in the EU. However, people need to know that when they move, they can securely access and exchange their health data should the need arise. To help citizens, a Recommendation was adopted in 2019, with which the Commission aims to establish a European Electronic Health Record exchange format with the aim of enabling electronic health records to be exchanged across the EU. This Recommendation also calls for a more effective coordination of investments in IT platforms that can be financed through EU funding.
The sharing of personal health data is not without risk or danger. It needs to be secure, especially if the data is exchanged across EU borders.
The EU Commission works with Member States to make sure health data sharing is cyber secure, private and protected, building on existing legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the emerging framework for cybersecurity, as well as working to deploy a secure infrastructure. To this end, the Commission is investing in innovative infrastructure under Horizon 2020 and proposes to deploy technologies that show promise under the forthcoming Digital Europe Programme.
Health related data can also greatly enrich research efforts to help fight disease. The EU has several initiatives in this respect. For example, the Commission is developing a large database of anonymised cancer images through dedicated Horizon 2020 projects. Another example is genomic data that allows us to better understand diseases, speed up diagnosis time of rare genetic conditions, and develop targeted and personalised treatments. The ‘1+ Million Genomes’ initiative of the Member States and coordinated by the Commission aims to make at least one million sequenced genomes in the EU by 2022 by interlinking EU datasets securely and making them accessible for analysis.
All of these data sources – of course, in an anonymised and GDPR-compliant way – will feed into a new European health data space, which will enable better healthcare provision, more innovations and improved policy-making.
In addition, to mitigate the far-reaching consequences of disinformation such as an erosion of citizens’ trust, the Commission established the High-Level Expert Group to tackle disinformation in 2018 and laid out an action plan. One of the core elements of this effort is the European Digital Media Observatory, which raises awareness, empowers citizens to respond to disinformation online, and coordinates responses with online platforms and the industry. By voluntarily adhering to the established Code of Practice on Disinformation, leading digital platforms are joining the fight against disinformation.
Although its importance was already clear, the Covid-19 pandemic has given powerful impetus to the digital transformation of health and care. It is clear we are in the middle of revolutionary changes in medicine and technology. To make the European healthcare ecosystem ‘fit for the digital age’, we need to accelerate this process across the EU. With the recent agreement on a new Multi-Annual Financial Framework, we have now the means to power this acceleration.