Last month, Debating Europe asked you what European healthcare should look like. We discussed some of the pressures the “European social model” is facing during the Eurozone crisis (and with the problem of an ageing population looming), and we asked whether investment in ICT might help maintain quality of care by making healthcare cheaper and more efficient. Some of you were quite critical of this suggestion. Eric Lagally, a health-technology blogger, left a comment criticising the focus on a high tech approach:
There is a natural tendency for companies to focus on those technologies that can be marketed to those who can best pay for them. Do we think that personalized medicine will really benefit everyone? I don’t think so, because we need to provide uniform access to basic health care services to everyone first. Spend the money and technology on reinforcing access to primary health care and, in the long run, the health care dollars will go a lot further.
Do you agree? Will advances in health technology benefit only a select few? Or will ICT help drive down costs and keep Europe’s public healthcare systems open and sustainable? Last week, Microsoft held it’s third annual eHealth event in Brussels, bringing together experts to discuss how technology can be applied to health and launching their manifesto for an eHealthier Europe. Debating Europe had the opportunity to pose questions to some of the policy-makers and experts at the event, and ask them for their thoughts. Paul Timmers, Director of ICT addressing Societal Challenges at DG INFSO (part of the European Commission) agreed that it’s important to be realistic when considering technology-based solutions to healthcare challenges:
Will ICT in healthcare ultimately deliver on all it promises? There are many barriers on the way. There are concerns about how difficult ICT is. Is it user-friendly enough? When we think especially about the older generation, are they sufficiently able to use the technology or can we make it even easier and more accessible?
There are concerns about privacy; what’s going to happen to my data? There are concerns about whether ICT will possibly be used in a way to control patients rather than to truly empower them. There are also concerns about whether it continues to be the interest of the citizen and the patient that are central, or are we actually going to put this in place because we just want to save money or because business wants to do good business?
Despite the challenge, participants were keen to stress the way technology could potentially make healthcare cheaper, and so more affordable and more sustainable. Ed Percy, Business Director-Manager for Healthcare at Logica, a business and technology service company, predicted that further innovations were starting to bear fruit:
We will see large-scale and low-cost sequencing of the genetic code of individuals and so, through comparative genetics, we will be able to identify more and more the genetic basis of some of the diseases people are afflicted with. This will eventually lead to the concept of stratified medicine – or ‘personalised medicine’ – where we are able to then take genetic information; take standard clinical information, collected as part of the encounters that take place in hospitals and primary care; and take information from phenotype projects, like the “citizen science” projects for collecting lifestyle information. And when we mash all of these up, we’ll be able to identify those patients that are at the greatest risk of a particular disease, or who are optimised or best suited for a clinical or pharmacutical trial.
From a consumer perspective, I think we’ll see citizens engaging much more fully through various types of amulets or devices in the healthcare environment. I think we’ll see them contributing information that is useful and can be used by the healthcare professionals. And, from a technology perspective, I think we’ll see technology becoming increasingly transparent.
Others working in healthcare were also keen to stress the possibilities offered by information-sharing through cloud computing. Diogo Reis, IT Manager of the Hospital Fernando Fonseca in Portugal and a consultant for the Central Health Record Solutions of the Portuguese Ministry of Health, had this to say:
Cloud-computing is a very nice solution, because it tends to solve many of the problems of interoperability and storage of information. One of the bigger problems when we try to make systems interoperable is [the question of] where to keep the information. If you keep it in your system and I keep it in mine, there is no guarantee that the information will be the same. But if we keep the information in the same place then we know it is the same… For instance, if [a patient] goes to one place and does a blood test then goes to another place and has to do the same thing again – it’s a problem for the patient, for the doctor who has to wait for results and it creates a lot of costs that aren’t measurable.
Of course, whether or not ICT helps to drive down the cost of healthcare, the increasing complexity of technology may mean some people are excluded anyway. Dr. Antonyia Parvanova, a healthcare professional and Member of the European Parliament, argued that advances in ICT won’t help the majority of citizens unless more people know how to make use of the new technologies:
It’s not only about access to the internet, but also how [citizens] use the technology and what do they understand from everything that’s available. How, from this mountain of information, can they find the right information for them? Especially for vulnerable groups like elderly people or people with disabilities or people with less knowledge of new technology? These two things, health literacy and e-literacy, have to be tackled together and put together.
What do YOU think? Could ICT help make European healthcare cheaper and more sustainable? Or will new technology rather increase costs and only benefit those able to afford more expensive treatment? And even if technology makes healthcare cheaper, how can we ensure that people aren’t excluded because it’s too complicated to use? Let us know your thoughts in the form below, and we’ll take your comments to policy-makers and experts to hear their reactions.