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30 November – Health First Europe attended the roundtable debate on “e-Health – additional cost burden or efficiency factor for Europe’s health systems?” organized by the European Policy Centre. The event brought together policymakers and stakeholders in order to discuss the economic rationale for using e-Health solutions.

John Hampson, e-Health Programme Director at NHS Yorkshire and the Humber, gave a national perspective on the issue. In the UK, the NHS will have to deliver up to £20 billion in efficiency savings over the next few years and technology is very much seen as a key contributor to this goal. Mr. Hampson informed the participants about two new major national initiatives being implemented in the country. On the basis of the results of the Whole Systems Demonstrator (WSD) programme – a randomised control trial of telehealth and the telecare services – the Department of Health considers that 3 million people with long term conditions will benefit from telehealth services over the next 5 years. This is how the project entitled 3 Million Lives was launched. A second ongoing initiative is called Digital First. Its aim is to improve the delivery of healthcare services by reducing unnecessary face-to-face contact between doctors and patients thanks to the use of existing technology. Mr. Hampson linked the implementation of ICT in the healthcare sector to patient empowerment and called e-health “a key driver of choice.”.

To further elaborate on the issue of the costs and benefits of ICT solutions, Mr. Dean Westcott from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) presented “Telecardiology in Italy: benefits from a telemedicine network connecting chronic patients, general practitioners and healthcare provider organisations”. The ACCA study based on a telecardiology project in Italy, showed how healthcare provider organisations and citizens benefited directly from e-Health solutions. Mr Westcott, who has been evaluating healthcare projects for the European Commission for a number of years, welcomed the opportunity for debating the crucial topic of e-Health. In fact, he is persuaded that the challenges posed by an ageing population and by growing pressures on healthcare budgets, require different solutions. Alongside the value in terms of saving resources, he pointed out that e-Health is vital to live up to patients’ expectations in the age of internet.

Balazs Szathmary, Senior Director at Oracle, contributed to the discussion by outlining the outstanding challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize the full potential of e-Health. He suggested that. “While it is widely accepted that building a dam will give a Return of Investment (ROI) in no less than 20 years, people seem less willing to accept this horizon in healthcare.” The fact that investments and benefits occur at different levels, Mr. Szathmary pointed out, is one of the main reasons why national policymakers are still reluctant to invest in e-Health.

e-Health features in the Digital Agenda for Europe and a new Action plan will be released soon by the European Commission. Mr. Pēteris Zilgalvis, from the Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, cited a few projects implemented in different Member States as evidence of the cost-effectiveness of e-Health. In Sweden, for instance, more than 80% of all prescriptions are electronically transferred from the doctor to the pharmacy with cost benefits of €330 million. The gross value of the Scottish Telecare Programme funded efficiencies are estimated around €77 million for the period 2006-2010. In Denmark, the streamlined services provided by the Health Data Network lead to cumulative savings of €92 million per year. In order to ensure the successfully deployment of e-Health solutions, Mr. Zilgalvis stressed the importance of having favourable regulatory frameworks in Member States. Finally, he shared with the audience that on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding, the European institutions are engaged in a dialogue with the United States in order to foster mutual understanding of the challenges faced by both sides in advancing the use of eHealth.

During the debate, eHealth was referred to by all speakers as a tool to improve access to healthcare while reducing costs. It was also agreed that the deployment of ICT solutions in healthcare needs to go hand in hand with IT and health literacy in order to promote patient empowerment. Overall, the participants agreed that the short term costs of eHealth will be far outweighed by the potential long term benefits.