Why ignoring eHealth is becoming an all too expensive luxury

Between 13-15 May, Dublin will play host to eHealth Week 2013, a 3 day event jointly organised by the European Commission and the Irish Presidency, bringing together industry partners and providers, as well as important government and regional decision-makers from across Europe.

eHealth Week represents a timely opportunity to encourage the continuous investment in health IT. It’s a phenomenon that has the potential to transform the healthcare industry as we know it – not only improving patient care but also getting a handle on rising medical costs.

Hardly an altogether new phenomenon in Europe, eHealth has been European health’s buzzword for a decade now. It’s readily relied upon as Europe’s ‘jack of all trades’ solution to systemic healthcare problems.

And, it would seem, that this isn’t entirely wrong. Look at the major problems facing global health and let your imagine run a little with the idea that eHealth tools and solutions could, at the touch of a button (literally – almost) be readily and uniformly applied across Europe.

Telemedicine. Imagine being able to book an appointment to see your doctor onscreen and avoid the inconvenience or, for many, the pain and hardship of getting to the surgery in person. Think how easy you’d sleep in the knowledge that your dialysis machine that was diligently keeping you alive throughout the night could continuously communicate the vital information to emergency hospital staff should there be a problem in your sleep. Providing clinical care at a distance could also dramatically reduce healthcare costs and increase efficiency through remote management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, fewer unnecessary consultations, fewer or shorter hospital stays and reduced transfer of infection.

Personalised medicine. Each of us is special and unique among the roughly 7 billion humans on this planet. We are the walking, talking instantiation of the 3 billion instances of four nucleotides that constitute our unique genome’s DNA. Even though you’re special (you are very special), today’s medical treatment is still generic. Through recent advances in health technology and further spurred on by the drive for digitally-collated patient data, the customisation of healthcare is now a reality i.e. medical decisions, practices and products can be tailored to an individual patient. Doctors can now craft a lifelong health maintenance strategy tailored to your unique genetic constitution – perhaps preventatively as opposed to reactively.

Electronic health records. Basically, just a copy of a patient’s records all in one place, EHRs focus on the total health of a patient and allow healthcare providers to share information with each other digitally. Such interoperability of health records enables more patient-centered care, improved quality, greater efficiency not to mention the convenience and cost savings.

So, it’s all very exciting and, as a so called ‘digital native’, I’m very open to all of this. But why are we not all jumping on the eHealth bandwagon? Why has the take-up of eHealth solutions up to now been characterised by lethargy if not resistance?

Well it has a lot to do with patient expectations. While we – as consumers – expect telecoms companies, for example, to be innovative, to take risks and to push the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with, it would seem that we don’t want that from our healthcare providers. We want safe, we want comfortable and we want affordable.

For many, the mere mention of the term eHealth is an opportunity to preemptively mourn the loss of face-to-face consultations and to remember ‘the good old days’ when you could develop a long-running, personal relationship with your doctor that was all in all good for your longevity. But very few would argue that the invention of the telephone has devalued face to face conversations or that the introduction of online banking has destroyed our conception of money altogether.

eHealth is clearly in need of some explaining and some real profiling because for as long as eHealth is on the backburner for patients and healthcare professionals, it will be that irritating, last on the agenda, try hard token ‘digital’ topic. But this negligence is becoming a European luxury – and an all too expensive one at that. With the potential that health IT holds, set against already struggling healthcare systems and austerity cutbacks, it seems that investment in eHealth development and take-up must be a priority in Europe.

With that in mind – and this is a plea to those on hand at this week’s many varied events – it is important that eHealth debates steer clear of the all-engulfing topic of data security, which remains the hot political topic on the health agenda of late – particularly amidst the discussions surrounding the revision of the Clinical Trials directive. Rather, the debates must maintain a focus on the raw potential of eHealth and the irreversible impact that it could have on patient safety in the next 10, 20, 50 years.

The 3 day event will fly by so we really must make the most of this forum for healthy eDiscussion and hearty eBest practice sharing. To end on a suitably digital note, keep an eye on Twitter #eHW13 to stay up to speed.