Telehealth in the European Union: Improving Access to Healthcare

Woman using telehealth to access healthcare in the EU

The European economy has seven consecutive years of growth with a positive forecast into 2020 and 2021. But the European Union (EU) faces the same worldwide healthcare challenges: aging population, chronic disease growth, inequality and access to healthcare services.

EU citizens born today are expected to live six years longer than those born in the 1990s. The EU statistics agency forecasts the continuation to age due to low birth rates and increasing longevity.

Yet, every EU member state has imbalances and shortages of healthcare professionals. And even the 10% growth in workforce during the last 10 years will not be enough to meet the needs of the silver tsunami, according to a WHO report.

Advances in Telehealth

Telehealth can significantly improve access to healthcare and thus quality of medical services for citizens, widening geographical coverage with virtual consultations, even if the amount of healthcare facility locations decreases.

Telehealth services are among the biggest eHealth trends in Europe, positioned second, just after patient health records in the recent Annual European eHealth Survey.

How fast can we adopt technologies in a multi-language, multicultural and diverse society, where free movement of workers is one of EU citizens’ freedoms?

According to EU statistics most Europeans can speak multiple languages. About 73% of the EU’s population aged 25 to 34 reported to know one foreign language. The highest levels, at more than 90%, are in Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Finland, Malta and Estonia. The rate of citizens’ mobility is growing, with the greatest rate among higher education graduates.

Everything from common language to digital skills, from access to healthcare and readiness to share personal health data, can influence the success of telehealth’s implementation.

Personal Health Data Considerations

EU citizens have common views about personal health data: 90% of citizens expect to have access to their own health data and 80% are ready to share data and provide feedback on the quality of treatments.

Around 20 countries expected to participate in exchanging patients’ health summaries and electronic prescriptions by 2020. Netherlands, Austria and Italy are among the first countries to use cross-organizational patient records.

These trends can have a positive effect on telehealth by improving patient-provider communication, especially in cross-border healthcare services.

Government Support

Anywhere in the world, digital health initiatives like telehealth need strong support from government. Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission mentioned eHealth among the highest priorities in her mission letter to Stella Kyriakides, commissioner-designate for health. “We need to make the most of the potential of e-health to provide high-quality healthcare and reduce inequalities. I want you to work on the creation of a European Health Data Space to promote health-data exchange and support research on new preventive strategies, as well as on treatments, medicines, medical devices and outcomes. As part of this, you should ensure citizens have control over their own personal data,” von der Leyen included in the letter.

Inclusion of digital health into priorities for healthcare systems is an important step forward. And this step cannot be executed without inter-institutional relations and better policy making. The Annual European eHealth Survey showed that legislation issues and lack of political direction are among top eHealth challenges mentioned by healthcare providers.

France is a successful example of telehealth adoption, with almost 10 years of successful telehealth legislation in place. Starting with teleradiology and telemedicine legislation in 2009, new laws allow paramedical professionals to work remotely. And France is the first country which outlined a public funding plan for tele-expertise at a national level. Moreover, the European Commission adopted a set of initiatives and legislative proposals under Connectivity for a European Gigabit Society within its Shaping the Digital Single Market strategy, placing the EU at the forefront of internet connectivity, making telehealth more feasible.

Looking Ahead

Telehealth is one of the fastest growing segments with high competition between tech companies. It’s a competition for wider functionality at a lower price, with faster implementation and readiness for interoperability and GDPR compliance.

Telehealth is passing through the waves of technological changes and achievements. Tech companies should be innovative in using existing customers’ assets, building hybrid telehealth systems and integrating their own solutions with hardware and software from previous telehealth generations. They must be ready to make communication processes as easy as possible and to build an effective ecosystem for clinicians and patients to better provide and access healthcare.

There are several successful examples of telehealth implementation for diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases in EU countries, as well as the European Reference Network—virtual cross-border network of health professionals, aimed at sharing expertise on complex and rare diseases.

Telehealth, as any digital transformation, requires a lot of effort from all participants. All of us can benefit from pan-European collaboration as breakthroughs cannot be developed in isolation. We must continue to be active and enthusiastic as we work toward public, free telehealth systems with the potential for cross-border use to improve our citizens’ access to care.

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