Use of Grid technology in health areas gains footing at Second European HealthGrid Event

Clermont-Ferrand 30 January 2004At the closing of the Second European HealthGrid Conference, held in Clermont-Ferrand, France at the end of January, Richard McClatchey from the University of West England presented a personal summary of the past event and the future directions of Grid developments and policies in health care. The speaker thus caught an eye on the history of HealthGrids; the role and positioning of the newly established HealthGrid Association, especially with respect to the European Research Area; current health-related Grids projects in progress; and the Third European HealthGrid Conference, which will be organised March 2005 in Oxford, the United Kingdom.


The first HealthGrid initiatives date back to 2002, according to Richard McClatchey, and started with the organisation of a HealthGrid workshop in Brussels, Belgium in September 2002, followed by a second round of Framework Programme 5 European Union health projects in Autumn 2002. The First European HealthGrid Conference was held in Lyon, France in January 2003. Concertation events such as GRIDStart in Spring 2003 kept the fire burning and in the Summer of 2003, the HealthGrid Association was created in France. At the start of the Second European HealthGrid Conference in Clermont-Ferrand, this January 2004, Jean-Claude Healy from the Information Society's Directorate General of the European Commission announced a Framework Programme 6 HealthGrids call for late 2004 or early 2005, as well as preparations for Framework Programme 7 and the European Research Area (ERA). The conference also seemed an excellent occasion to organise the First HealthGrid Association's Annual General Meeting and so it happened.

The HealthGrid Association aims to unite the European Union funded projects that use Grid technology in health areas. Richard McClatchey pointed out that the foundation of the HealthGrid Association will contribute to the structuring of the European Research Area for health by favouring the use of Grid technologies. The Association should offer active support and guidelines for the extension of the association's members contribution to society and supply information and other services relevant to its members. Co-operation between the members, notably in the creation of effective networks of collaboration, has to be encouraged as well as the creation of partnerships to benefit both higher education and scientific research in the field of the health in its broadest sense, both within Europe and in the rest of the world.

This year's HealthGrid Conference addressed four items in a same amount of sessions, namely the vision and approaches towards the concept of HealthGrid; the end user needs; the building of infrastructures and testbeds; and the implementation of HealthGrids combined with alternative or complementary technologies and with a focus on security and privacy. The Conference organisers welcomed four key-note speakers. Ignacio Blanquer from the Universidad Politécnica of Valencia in Spain described the Grid as a health care provision tool; René Ziegler from Novertis Pharma AG in Switzerland held a talk on PharmaGrids as a key to pharmaceutical innovation; Kyriakos Baxevanidis from the Information Society's Directorate General of the European Commission highlighted the opportunities for eHealth in the European Union e-infrastructure initiative; and Jean Herveg from the Centre de Recherche Informatique & Droit, FUNDP in Belgium addressed the legal aspects of HealthGrid projects.

Twenty-two papers from eight countries were presented as well as twenty-four poster demonstrations from ten countries. Richard McClatchey provided a non-exhaustive overview of the different themes that were discussed ranging from knowledge and information discovery across federated databases, computational Grids and integration issues to virtual organisations' management, privacy and security, and the need for cross-projects consortia and initiatives. The speakers addressed a variety of areas including bio-informatics, pharmaceutical applications, neuroscience research, medical images, social health care, computerised epidemiology, and health data storage and processing network.

At present, there are already a host of ongoing HealthGrid projects. Richare McClatchey named Grid initiatives such as GEMSS, MAMMOGRID, DataGrid, Pharma GRID, BioGRID, INFOGENMED, and CROSSGrid. He explained that these initial projects are now applying the Grid at national and international levels in medical imaging, sequence analysis, modelling of medical data, knowledge extraction to provide guidelines for health professionals and standards. The speaker indicated that the success of these pioneer projects will be the first real showcases needed to convince the end-user community of the possible impact on health care. In addition, regional health networks have been working on solutions for data access and sharing issues.

Seen in the light of future developments, Richard McClatchey believed that Grid-based applications should be able to provide quick and easy access to non-IT experts and must engage with the health community. Health care needs not only storage and transfer of large amounts of data but also access, update and an intelligent combination of heterogeneous data to create new knowledge, he added, with the possibility of homogeneous access to remote medical data when patients are treated in different locations. The speaker predicted that introducing Grids to health care will be difficult since health care professionals are often reluctant to change and are wary of risk. Citizens on the other hand must trust the system to let it handle personal data. The end-user community is heterogeneous so there has to be room for both open source tools and commercial products.

At the First HealthGrid Conference in 2003, the requirements and intentions were properly defined. The Second HealthGrid event addressed the current research and its progress. The Oxford HealthGrid gathering in 2005 aims at presenting the first results and effects of using Grid technology for health. In conclusion, Richard McClatchey stated that it will be necessary to get "buy in" from physicians and to understand their modus operandi. Reliable, robust Grids will have to be built and standards agreed upon for access, security and privacy. This calls for intensive collaboration to avoid duplication and to share experiences through the Global Grid Forum and the national schemes.

Leslie Versweyveld

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