17 Sep 2018

The healthcare system is being challenged by the various realities of modern society, including rising budget pressures, a growing aging population, increased patient expectations, and the continuing drive to develop better and innovative medicines. The emergence and continued expansion of digital health services can play an important role in addressing and transforming the understanding and approach to healthcare for governments, industry, and individuals. 

Digital health (also referred to as eHealth) is more than digital innovation in healthcare. It represents the integration of healthcare resources, information and tools. Accessing a growing and increasingly transient body of data, more holistic and flexible healthcare programmes can be developed. Importantly, eHealth helps to empower the patient. It can help to reduce the gap between individuals and contribute to improving global access to healthcare. 

The phenomenon is not new, with the EU having spent 30 years investing both time and money, but its popularity has regained an important footing. The inclusion of eHealth across the EU policies under Digital Single Market Strategies and the technological innovations such as the continued progress in the field of artificial intelligence have contribute to the renewed interest.  

Digital technologies are increasingly becoming a more integral part of pharmaceutical companies’ economic models by providing opportunities to reduce R&D costs, conduct better clinical trials, and develop better and more personalised treatments. The opportunities are vast and need only be grasped. 

The advancements in healthcare attributed to eHealth can make one feel as if they live in a futuristic society. For example, people living with type 1 diabetes can simplify their lives thanks to small wireless insulin pumps, connected to under-skin glucose monitoring systems, that register sugar levels in real time. This information can be accessed by patients, families and physicians at any time.

Political space 

As part of the new political reality in the United Kingdom post-Brexit, long-time Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave way to newcomer Matt Hancock in June of this year. As one of his first acts, Hancock identified eHealth as the main priority within the National Health Service, whose earlier initiatives with eHealth were not a resounding success. He follows in the footsteps of several European countries who have been placing renewed focus on eHealth. 

Activity has not been confined to member states. This year saw the European Commission adopt the eHealth Communication, one of the final steps of the 2nd eHealth Action Plan (2014 – 2020). An ambitious agenda has been presented, which will need to be picked up in the next eHealth Action Plan by the new Commission following the European elections (May 2019). In the close future, the Commission intends to overcome what is probably considered the main barrier for the development of large-scale and interconnected eHealth services: the management of the Electronic Health Records. After specifically addressing health data in the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Commission is expected to publish a Recommendation on interoperability of Electronic Health Records. This will allow public and private services to operate easily and cross borders. This will be followed by a new series of initiatives supported by the EU to foster the introduction of applications and other digital technologies in healthcare systems. 

The transformation of the healthcare space 

As the EU continues to regulate and shape the eHealth space, it is important that patients, consumers, and industry engage in a frank, multi-stakeholder discussion with regulators and legislators. The EU has been open in its collaboration, having sought the input of stakeholders. However, as the EU’s policy on eHealth continues to develop, it will be those who participate in the discourse and demonstrate early engagement who will play the key role. Continued involvement will contribute to sensible regulation in line with the rights of patients, and the technical viability of healthcare technologies. 

The pioneers of eHealth will contribute to shaping the EU’s policy moving forward. The growing interconnectivity of Europe’s data has opened the possibility of large captive market. This early engagement does not come without its challenges, namely around data privacy. Reeling from recent data scandals and with healthcare data all the more private, industry will have to overcome significant barriers. This will require proper awareness campaigns and information about how data can be used, key to which will be the value of one individual’s data to helping that of another. The vanguard of the eHealth movement will need to champion proper regulation and transparency to maintain trust to realise the full value of this healthcare revolution. 

With these changes, healthcare is no longer limited to traditional pharmaceutical or medical devices companies. The proliferation of digital companies and the corresponding transformation of society has begun to shape the healthcare industry by embracing eHealth. ‘Big Tech’ has already taken significant steps towards healthcare. Amazon purchased an online pharmacy while a range of apps has been developed which help strengthen the viability of personalised treatments for various diseases. 

This new frontier in healthcare need not represent a schism between ‘old’ and ‘new’, but should be seen as an opportunity for new collaboration and innovation to advance patient outcomes. eHealth has the potential to redefine the notion of putting the patient at the centre of healthcare. The synergy between these industries, along with the support from the public sphere, has already brought astonishing new treatments to tackle new and old diseases. 

Hanover has a dedicated group of consultants with in-depth knowledge of current European healthcare and digital policy debates. With a clear understanding of the fast-growing eHealth environment and the new opportunities offered by the rapid development of big data and artificial intelligence technologies, our healthcare and digital teams combine their expertise to support our clients on how to navigate within the different policy clusters and foresee the potential impact on their business.

 Please contact Emma Eatwell, EU Healthcare Director, to discuss how Hanover can help your organisation.