European healthcare online by 2008
Covering everything from electronic prescriptions and computerised health records, The European Commission (EC) has unveiled an action plan to show how information and communication technologies can be used to deliver better quality health care Europe-wide.
The main goal is a pan-European e-Health area, complete with health entitlement cards, electronic records and high-speed Net access for doctors.
Practical steps towards achieving these goals include, work on electronic health records and the faster rollout of high speed Internet access for health systems.
New and concrete actions will be taken forward as part of the action plan:
· By 2005, Member States are asked to develop national and regional e-Health strategies. A public portal will be launched to provide "one-stop shop" access to information on health in the entire EU.
· By 2006, national healthcare networks should be "well advanced" in their efforts to 'talk' to each other. Standards for electronic health records are to be agreed so that patients can be identified and information made easily exchangeable over the network. Movement of patients and healthcare professionals will be easier as a result.
· By 2008, health information and services are to become easily accessible over both fixed and wireless broadband networks. Expected services include tele-consultations and the availability of prescriptions online.
Meanwhile, an important step is to be made with the introduction of a European health card as of 1 June 2004.
It is hoped that by the end of the decade, e-Health will become commonplace for health professionals, patients and citizens.
Today at least four out of five European doctors have an Internet connection, and a quarter of Europeans use the Internet to get information about illnesses and health matters.
Already, there are plenty of examples of e-Health in action in the Member States.
Health information networks, such as Denmark's medcom, are supporting the work of hospitals, pharmacies and doctors, whilst delivering substantial savings in hospital costs and helping to speed up treatment and diagnosis.
NHS Direct Online, which has been accessed by six million people in two-years, is another such success story and has been heralded by the EC as a golden example of "e-Health in action."
The Commission currently puts the e-Health industry turnover at 11 billion euros and estimates that, up to five per cent of health budgets will be invested in e-Health services by 2010.
The idea is that the money diverted from directly dealing with patients can be justified because the technology will save time and money, in the long run.
However, the implementation must happen at country level and judging by progress in the UK, there could well be a few “hiccups” along the way.
This month, for example, the British Medical Association (BMA) has joined MPs and the National Audit Office in criticising the government over the NHS IT programme, saying doctors have not been adequately consulted about its implementation.
Overall, major impediments to the successful development of European e-Health infrastructure have so far been identified as the lack of broadband connections and an insufficient penetration of the Internet among the general public.
Some experts have even pointed to doctors' traditionally conservative views about changing professional practices as being the main factor impeding e-Health.
Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen said: "The challenges facing health care in Europe today require a bold response. The greater use of the Internet must be encouraged because new technologies and services make access faster and easier, reduce errors, and improve the effectiveness of health care systems."
Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne added: "Patients will benefit from the use of information and communication technologies in healthcare. With the adoption of the e-Health action plan yet another element is in place to address the many issues that confront health services throughout the EU."
Sources: EurActiv.com, PublicTechnology.net, The Register
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