On 5 November 2019, policymakers and health representatives met in the premises of the European Parliament to debate the role of the workforce of the future in making health care systems more efficient and financially sustainable in delivering care. The event was organised by Health First Europe under the Patronage of the Finnish Presidency of the Council and moderated by Marc Lange, representing one of our members, the European Health Telematics Association.
Digital solutions in health care offer new opportunities to transform health care. However, many barriers are still in place to make the digital transformation happen:
- The lack of digital literacy to understand and use digital technologies and electronic health records for better patient outcomes
- Missing digital infrastructures to safely share health data and foster collaboration amongst health care professionals
- Fragmented views on the required digital skills for the health care professionals of the future
- Our health care financial models struggle to address digital infrastructure challenges and to translate digital benefits and connectivity into value and cost saving
In this frame, the discussion looked for answers to the key question: How can we ensure that health workers play a leading role in driving a successful digital revolution?
Health care is a crucial economic sector as well as everyone’s business. Our health and wellbeing are inextricably linked – which is precisely why well-structured and thoughtful policies are essential. As emphasised by MEP Tomislav Sokol (EPP, Croatia), who kindly hosted the event, “There is the need of a deep reform in the EU health systems to ensure sustainability in light of future challenges. It is clear that ageing demographics and the rise of chronic diseases, have increased the demand and availability of treatment and personalised lifelong care, which in turn are creating an economic stress on health systems. Our current structure is no longer sustainable in the long term; therefore, health systems must be adapted to effectively address present needs”.
Digital solution in health care offer new opportunities to transform the way we receive and provide health care services. Health data and advanced analytics can help accelerate scientific research, personalised medicine, early diagnosis of diseases and more effective treatments. In this regard, health workers play a crucial role in driving a successful transformation of care, only in Europe there are 18.6 million health care workers which represent the 8.5% of the total European workforce. Due to that, it is necessary to launch an inclusive debate to shape the profile of the health worker of the future and have a long-term strategy.
Keynote speakers opened the discussion by sharing their expert opinions on what are the structural changes required to support health care workforce in implementing digital care in all health care settings. Maria Teresa Parisotto (European Specialist Nurses Organisations) and Annabel Seebohm (Standing Committee of European Doctors) stressed how the technological revolution will enable cost-efficient remote care and virtual assistance. Unfortunately, the workforce is not always prepared to apply these innovations. Closing the gaps between the workforce skills and the skills necessary to benefit from digital tools is a key priority. Structural changes are required to make the best use of digital solutions and workers should be part of the decision-making process.
According to Paulius Povilonis (European Medical Students’ Association), to maximise the benefits of digital technologies, it is necessary “to bridge the gap between digital health information and medical students, and digital health should be included in the medical CV”.
As confirmed by the data provided by the European Association of pharmaceutical students almost 95 % of new graduates do not know what eHealth is after finishing their studies. Only a few Member States in the EU included eHealth as a mandatory class in the pharmaceutical university curricula. Yet, this should be an opportunity for students to stimulate a real-life experience and improve their working skills. “It is essential to recognise eHealth not as a cost but as an investment for the future of health care” mentioned Tilen Kozole (European pharmaceutical students’ associations). However, in order to achieve standardised training and ed
ucation, EU Member States need to further cooperate in the creation of an eHealth curricula and share best practices. Doctors can only build their relationship with patients on trust and accountability, but in order to do so, they need to understand how eHealth works. “The future health workforce needs to be trained not only for technical skills, but interpersonal skills, to be able to work with different teams”, claims Antanas Montvila (European Junior Doctors Association).
EU policies need to support health care workers in scaling up innovation. The problem is much deeper than health care systems being in need of a stronger digitalisation; the internet of things is already there and the near future is data driven, collecting information and putting it into context. Despite so, at the end of the day what makes the difference is professionals being able to use digital tools, not the technology per se.
In this context a special role is played at management level, where training and digital literacy have to be seen as an investment rather than a cost. European Commission’s initiatives such as the Digital Europe Programme, Erasmus + and the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF), in addition to regional funds, bring together synergies to invigorate digital skills and literacy in order to obtain better job qualifications and address the needs of different economic sectors, including health care. On this note, Christoph Klein (European Commission, DG CNECT), stressed the importance of cross-border collaboration as well as EU coordination to boost digital skilling across Europe.
Matthias Wismar from the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies pointed out the need to improve digital education by ad-hoc policies striving digital literacy. In his own words, it is essential “to identify and report which innovations fit in each country and understand how health care workers can implement them. And above all, we need more comparative research and intersectoral and interdivisional skills, we cannot focus only on technology”.
During the debate, the majority of the participants recognised collaboration skills as the key skill to deliver patient-centric digital health. As stressed by Tanja Valentin (MedTech Europe), cooperation with emerging professions and ICT staff as well as flexibility are needed in order to share best practices, deliver care efficiently and learn from others.
To bring the national perspective in the debate, Tapani Piha representing the Finnish Presidency of the Council introduced what Finland has been doing to enhance digital health and provide solutions applicable to the rest of EU countries. The EU can and should help to strive digital health, despite health remains as a national competence. Therefore, EU Member States, need to picture digitalisation as an opportunity to create new jobs, enhance knowledge sharing between health care workers and as a new tax contribution to the system, since digital care is a bigger competence interconnected with diverse fields.
Looking at the Finnish case, health records are accessible online for patients together with their medical data and prescriptions. On top of that, digital education is already part of the medical curricula and media literacy is open to all citizens, not only students. On this line, the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the EU focuses on the responsible and smart secondary use of medical data, boosting platforms to support digitalisation in the so-called “economy of wellbeing”.
In her closing remarks, Sara Cerdas (S&D, Portugal) pointed out that we must have a common vision to address the digital transformation of care and to foster digital skills. The digital technologies are an inevitable part of the future of European health care systems, it is crucial that health care professionals achieve the skills and knowledge to make the digital transformation of care a reality and deliver care closer to patients. As she said “The health and care digital transformation is happening right now and we need to accelerate the pace to create more sustainable health services. Open discussions with different stakeholders are crucial for planning realistic goals for a greater adaption of this new reality. The education of the health workforce to adapt to this reality is of the utmost importance for a smooth transition, and for the highest quality provision of care.”