Monday

20th Nov 2017

Column / Health Matters

Digital health has potential but needs to be secure

  • Some hospitals' IT infrastructures still use long-forgotten versions of the Windows operating system. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU has put e-health under the political spotlight once again.

But this year's cyberattacks - affecting the UK's National Health Service (NHS) and targeted at consumer credit company Equifax in the United States - has highlighted how vulnerable sensitive personal, social security and health data can be to hackers.

Within the EU, Estonia is considered a digital leader. The country was ranked sixth overall in a recent report on data innovation in the EU.

The victim of a major cyberattack in 2007 (the first known on an entire country) - that took down internet sites and servers of media outlets, banks and government bodies - Estonia has recovered by investing greatly in data and cybersecurity.

Healthcare blockchain

One of Estonia's flagship digital health policies is to put its citizens' medical records on blockchain.

The encrypted, peer-to-peer method of storing data is seen by the Estonian government as a good bet to keep its citizens data safe from malicious state or criminal attempts to access it.

Estonia is far ahead of many other EU member states, where patient records may not even be digitised.

A change in the government's mindset, first prompted by security risks, has now developed into genuine digital enthusiasm over the past decade. It came about by understanding the benefits of delivering public services online and engaging citizens directly.

The investment has also proved to be a boost for Estonian tech companies and entrepreneurs.

Digital health and big data are particularly exciting because solutions have been presented for all the biggest public health challenges.

Consider the case of cervical cancer screening. Currently, the holders of healthcare purse-strings may primarily set a crude barrier - age - to decide when women are to be offered screening. While risk clearly does increase with age, other risk factors are not properly taken into account - such as diet, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Cross-fertilisation of data could enable more targeted screening for women who are "at risk" for cervical cancer, and allow healthcare providers to identify specific individuals.

This allows healthcare spending to be far more accurately targeted.

Targeted care

Involving citizens in their own health and well-being is another notable area of digital promise.

Deeper understanding of genetics, in tandem with technological progress, will drive an ever more personalised approach to healthcare. This is essential in an ageing society where antiquated financial models are already stretched.

At the e-Health Tallinn 2017 Conference, the EU commissioner for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, pointed out how only two percent of healthcare spending by EU member states is for prevention. So much for the mantra 'prevention is better than cure'.

The growing use of health, well-being and fitness apps points to an encouraging trend of self-analysis and behavioural change.

Users of running and cycling apps, for example, have shown the motivation factor of self-tracking. Health practitioners hope to tap into this instinct to improve public health.

Traditional healthcare companies, and new entrants to healthcare - such as tech companies and app developers - are racing to bring new digital technologies to patients.

Governments and healthcare companies repeatedly assert their credentials as part of the next wave of change in technology and healthcare. However, their impact on daily lives remain minimal.

Policymakers can, however, make a bigger difference on citizens' access to emerging technologies by making clear and logical legislation for health products and data protection which will ensure rapid assessment of safety and efficacy of apps and products.

Fast technology, slow legislation

The rapid pace of technological change makes this difficult - as legislation is soon rendered out of date.

The European Commission, European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cooperate to try to stay ahead of the curve and seek regulatory convergence. However, the breadth and depth of applying types of technology, such as artificial intelligence, will only become more challenging.

And balancing user and societal benefit with privacy and security is more important in digital health than in other applications of new technology.

A clear explanation to the public on the potential value of big data for social good will be essential to build trust.

To become a genuine early-adopter of technology, like Estonia, requires high-level governmental and medical community commitment, and consistent investment over the long term.

Funding for appropriate digital health technologies will have to come from decidedly traditional budget holders in healthcare, governments, insurers and individuals purchasing private healthcare.

To reassure citizens that their data is in good hands, equivalent investment on security will be necessary.

But the irony of governments professing to be digital health leaders - when IT infrastructures in hospitals still routinely use long-forgotten versions of the Windows operating system - is not lost on healthcare professionals.

Steve Bridges is an independent health policy adviser in Brussels. His Health Matters column takes a closer look at health-related policies, issues and trends in the EU.

Feature

Medical technology: Advancing too fast for its own good?

The rapid advancement of medical technology has contributed to people living longer, healthier lives but consumer and campaign groups say devices should come under more scrutiny before they are used on patients.

Hurdles confront e-health across Europe

Information technology applied to healthcare – broadly termed e-health – is set to revolutionise patient care and how healthcare systems can be structured and managed. However, different obstacles are standing in the way for Europe to truly embrace the digital reform of its healthcare systems.

Feature

Sedentary pandemic threatens EU health

Children and young people spend too much time playing with smartphones and tablets, eating and drinking unhealthy foods and not moving much, said EU commissioner of health Vytenis Andriukaitis. So what is the EU doing about it?

Supported by

News in Brief

  1. EU medicines agency will move to Milan or Amsterdam
  2. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan in next round of EMA vote
  3. Three countries pull out of medicines agency Brexit race
  4. Schulz calls for new German elections
  5. EU Commission 'confident' on German stability
  6. EU adopts new border check rules
  7. Soros: Hungary's campaign based on 'distortions and lies'
  8. German talks collapse 'bad news', Dutch minister says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Dialogue PlatformErdogan's Most Vulnerable Victims: Women and Children
  2. UNICEFEuropean Parliament Marks World Children's Day by Launching Dialogue With Children
  3. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  4. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  6. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  7. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  8. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  10. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  11. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy
  2. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  3. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  5. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  6. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  8. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  9. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  10. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  11. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  12. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs