European Commission calls for better use of technologies that empower patients, improve health care and save lives

Tromsø 20 May 2005Commissioners Markos Kyprianou, Health and Consumer Protection, and Viviane Reding, Information Society and Media, are calling on governments and the private sector to make better use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in Europe's health care systems. Health ministers and IT experts from across Europe are due to meet in the Norwegian town of Tromsø on 23 and 24 May to debate how the potential of "eHealth" can be realised. This third European ministerial conference on eHealth is jointly organised by the Commission, Luxembourg Presidency and the Norwegian government. The event also encompasses an exhibition of best practices in health care drawn from across Europe

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Speaking ahead of the Tromsø conference, Markos Kyprianou, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, stated: "eHealth can empower patients and improve health care. Even more importantly, by reducing the scope for medical errors, it can save lives. We need a partnership between health ministers, technology providers, patient groups and health NGOs to release the full potential of eHealth in Europe. The Tromsø conference is a step towards achieving that."

"The European approach to eHealth should be about spending euros on patients not on paperwork", stated Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media. "For example, electronic medical records can help doctors to diagnose illness and prescribe treatments more accurately, thus reducing medical errors. It also means cutting down paperwork to improve efficiency. Electronic patient referrals in Denmark are saving 1 million euro a year and could rise to to 3,5 million euro a year, if all referrals were sent electronically."

eHealth can really help empower patients. Europeans increasingly want to play an active role in decisions relating to their health. eHealth can give them the easy access to high quality health information that they need to achieve this. As part of its current eHealth action plan, the Commission will launch an European Union Health Portal later this year, providing a "one stop shop" for health information produced by the European Union and a gateway to the Web sites of national and regional health authorities and civil society groups in the health field.

The conference and exhibition showcases eHealth success stories from across Europe, including a number of projects fostering eHealth applications, which have been co-financed by the European Union's Public Health Programme and Information Society Technologies research.

As such, the European Union project WEALTHY project has produced a groundbreaking woven yarn, endowed with a wide range of electrophysical properties. This has been used to produce clothes which have fibre sensors, portable devices for collection and processing of data, and for telecommunications, thus combining local intelligence and remote decision-support systems. This technology has been applied monitoring the health of patients, for example, during rehabilitation or for persons working in situations of extreme stress - extreme heat or cold, emergencies and accidents, and other life-threatening situations. This is a good example of how multi-disciplinary research yields high levels of innovation and creativity. The project ran from September 1, 2002 to February 28, 2005 and has received 1.775.569 euro of EU funding.

The WRAPIN project facilitates more reliable on-line advice for patients and individuals. It applied new developments in the mapping of medical terms, indexing and search technologies, for finding documents of high quality on health-related topics, and produced a modular platform for integrating the most trustworthy and complete sources of information. The project has had a large impact on the standards of eHealth-related Web sites in Europe and internationally. It has been influential in terms of certified health-related data accessible to citizens and to patients via the Web and in relation to vastly improved health data available via the Web. The project ran from September 1, 2001 to October 30, 2003 and has received 497.623 euro of EU funding.

The EU research project "AMIT" has delivered prototypes of an "electron spin measurement system" (ESR) which considerably advance the state of the art in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for keyhole surgery. Such minimally invasive surgical techniques require a means of seeing inside the patient so that the surgical instrument used can be placed very precisely and reliably. The project has already led to a small spin-off company "Neagen Oy", being set up in Finland, to market the technology. The project ran from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2002 and has received 1.162.440 euro of EU funding.

The EU research project CHRONIC, led by Barcelona's University Hospital, has changed the way health care is delivered to chronically ill people in the city region. The applications developed which are now in use, are at the basis of a reorganisation of local health care provision. Barcelona's health care authorities are shifting to providing integrated services for home care assistance that are much more suitable for chronically ill people. The technologies being introduced which form an integrated care platform, include call centres, patient-handling information, support for monitoring and transmission of vital signs, and portable equipment to support interventions in the person's homes. The project ran from January 1, 2000 to June 30, 2002 and has received 1.881.848 of EU funding.

Current projects funded by the EU's Public Health Programme are the following. The Commission supported a project by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment to create a sustainable, Web-accessible, public health information, knowledge, and data management system. The University of Nottingham is currently running a project to explore whether electronic patient records can be used to collect health monitoring data. The Commission is also funding a project led by the University Hospital of Tromsø to examine patients' use of and attitudes to information and communication technologies. It will be based on a bi-annual survey carried out in seven European countries. The survey will in particular look at media literacy and access to on-line information on health.

The Commission is about to fund the creation of a package of standards, specifications, guidelines and training materials which Member States can use to help implement eHealth technologies effectively. The package will be based on the identification of comparative advantages and best practices on policy, quality, safety and access to eHealth services versus traditional services.

All major hospitals and health care institutions in the Czech Republic can utilize services provided by a Regional - at the beginning Metropolitan - Picture Archiving and Communication System operated by Masaryk University. These include the consultation of images including x-ray, ultrasound, mammography etc., a fast and accessible electronic storage system, and broadband communication facilities for consultation between radiologists to obtain a second opinion or image diagnosis by specialists from a distant hospital etc.

Denmark's Health Portal now enables all citizens having a recognised digital signature (OCES) to review their own health data, i.e. their complete electronic medical file, and to communicate with their own doctor, e.g. for appointment booking. Equally, health care professionals can search for information on their patients using the Health Portal. Similar networks exist in Norway and Sweden and the next step is to create a cross-national Baltic Health Network (BHN), using EU-funding. Two hospital networks from Lithuania and Estonia will also be connected. The objective of BHN is to remove the technical barrier for collaboration between health professionals and when operational in August 2005, the BHN will be the only cross-national health network in Europe.

In Greece, a home-based integrated service for rehabilitation, follow up, and home hospitalisation is provided to elderly patients typically having more than one chronic disease, frequent exacerbations, poor quality of life or repeated hospital admissions. The service is offered by a multi-disciplinary team of medical and paramedic experts, through virtual and/or real visits. The service was introduced in 2002, and has resulted in significant improvements in patients' quality of life and a very high reduction in their hospital re-admissions rate of more than 50 percent.

The eHealth Card project in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany addresses the integration and optimization of work flows and processes, to reduce treatment costs and rehabilitation time for the patients. Two families of smartcards have been issued: to health care professionals and to patients, each based on RSA cryptography required by law for patient health records in Germany. Access to patient health records is only granted when both the patient's and health care professional's smartcards are present in the same place at the same time. This "two-face-commit" procedure safeguards the data autonomy of the patients as well as restricting access for health professionals only.

Last year in the framework of the Hungarian eHealth programme a collection of national standards for medical informatics has been created. The standards have been accepted as pre-standards by the Hungarian Standards Institution. One of the first uses of the standards is to be an EU-funded development project aiming to create a medical regional inter-institutional information system.

Irish Health Services have undergone a radical change and are now managed by one national organisation, the Health Services Executive [HSE]. Key to the delivery of more effective and efficient health and social care services is the availability of a national Electronic Health Record, available on a 24-7 basis. This supports a patient booking service and has provided accurate waiting list information. Patients now only need to enter their data once. The system has improved clinical decision making, eliminated many unnecessary tests, supported the prioritisation of patients and reduced waiting lists.

The Tuscany Imaging Diagnostic Informatization project in Italy aims to interconnect all diagnostic points-of-care with a radiology information system and a picture archive implementation system (RIS-PACS). The focus is on distributing top level know-how and assistance and at the same time to gain a reduction of professional and management costs. The systems are being implemented first in all hospitals and then in every geographically-distributed point-of-care, for instance poli-ambulatori, ambulances, volunteer's centres etc. They are being integrated with existing hospital information systems and with a regional radiological index archive. The project has already delivered organisational benefits, economic benefits and increased ability to deploy services with a significant reduction of waiting lists, answering-time, whilst still maintaining the original levels of quality. The project is supported by EU grants and is a showcase of the region.


Leslie Versweyveld

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