Sunday

11th Apr 2021

Complexity of EU health data exchange 'underestimated'

  • EU citizens have the right to be treated in another EU member states - although few realise it (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission underestimated how difficult it would be to link healthcare data from different EU member states, according to a new report out on Tuesday (4 June).

The report, by the independent European Court of Auditors, said that the commission managed the implementation of the 2011 cross-border healthcare directive well.

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  • Annually, some 200,000 patients receive healthcare treatments in another EU country. In 2016, more than 70 percent of them were French. (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

"However, EU patients still face challenges in accessing healthcare abroad and only a minority of potential patients are aware about their rights to seek cross border healthcare," the report said.

Annually, some 200,000 patients receive healthcare treatments in another EU country. In 2016, more than 70 percent of them were French.

The countries which most often receive patients from other EU countries are Spain (46,000 in 2016), Portugal (33,000) and Belgium (27,000).

The European Court of Auditors - which despite its name is not an actual court - looked at the implementation of an EU programme that allows the exchange of medical data, the eHealth Digital Service Infrastructure (eHDSI).

The report said that the EU commission "underestimated difficulties involved in deploying an EU-wide eHealth infrastructure", and overestimated when EU member states would use the system.

"Commission announcements on the likely level of health data exchanges across borders have been overoptimistic," the auditors said.

It pointed to a 2017 announcement by the commission which said that the following year, 12 EU states would "start exchanging patient data on a regular basis" - when in fact the first exchange did not happen until earlier this year.

Since 21 January 2019, citizens from Finland are able to use their digital prescriptions to buy medicines in Estonia.

Czechia and Luxembourg can receive electronic patient summaries from other EU countries via the eHDSI system, but there are no EU member states yet that can send them.

In a response to the auditors' criticism, the commission said - in a reply attached to the report - that delays could have been expected.

"Accurately estimating the time of completion of highly technological and innovative projects in an area where subsidiarity plays a major role is very difficult," the commission said.

Subsidiarity is the theoretic principle of setting rules at the level of government that can be most efficient.

The 28 national governments of the EU still have a great degree of freedom on how they provide healthcare to their citizens.

Participation in the eHDSI system for example, is voluntary.

Right to have operation abroad

The Court of Auditors also noted that few citizens were aware that the 2011 directive gave them the right to have a planned medical procedure in another EU member state.

At the same time it acknowledged that this assumption was based on a Eurobarometer survey, the field work for which was done in October 2014.

"The commission has no recent data on the awareness of citizens regarding the directive," said the audit report.

The commission agreed that there was "a lack of awareness of the directive's benefits for EU citizens".

The report also discussed the delayed introduction of a European register for rare diseases, set up by the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC).

"At the time of the audit the JRC platform was due to go live in February 2019, more than two years later than initially planned," the report said.

"We found that the original timing and budget allocation planned for the platform were unrealistic," it added.

"The timing of the go-live of the JRC platform could not be planned with precision from the start due to the complexity of the project," the commission explained.

It was launched on 28 February 2019.

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