In discussions among European health ministers, the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union raises the question of how to ensure the free and secure cross-border movement of health data.
In healthcare, digital solutions must be implemented in accordance with all privacy and securityrequirements. However, this does not mean that we should “secure” health data from use, but rather that we should create conditions for using it in a secure way, writes the Deputy Secretary General for e-Services and Innovation at the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs, Ain Aaviksoo.
The Eurobarometer study published in May 2017 reveals that 70% of the citizens of the European Union are willing to share their health data, including 65% with a doctor or healthcare specialist, 21% for studies conducted by the public sector, and 14% for studies conducted by the private sector. A total of 5% of the respondents would allow their health data to be used for commercial reasons, and 52% of the respondents would like online access to their health data. At the same time, only 18% of the respondents have used digital health services over the past year.
Technology offers a wide range of possibilities
The sharing of personal and health data has been regulated differently in the countries of the European Union. This inhibits the development of common cross-border e-health services that would help to create innovative solutions with considerable added value to healthcare in the context of an ageing European population. New digital solutions allow patients to control the state of their own health, monitor their health behaviour, and impact treatment outcomes.
Digital solutions have helped to create innovation in all areas of life, enabling the achievement of better results in a considerably more cost-efficient manner than before. People are increasingly more active in the use of e-services, creating the expectation that these services will also be used in healthcare. However, a considerable amount of opportunities offered by technology still remain unused. People cannot access the personalised services required, as these cannot be established due to state systems.
Individual health data becomes big data
Digital health data is an inevitable precondition for e-services. This creates the opportunity for big data analysis based on the broad use of health data, and, for example, developing personal medicine based on the combined use of gene and health data. The use and analysis of big data creates new potential for developing health services and devising new preventive measures and treatment possibilities. Data analysis helps to detect the spread of infections at an early stage, reduce costs, and foster innovation in the industry of health-related products and services.
In Estonia, the electronic storage of a person’s health data and sharing of it via the Estonian National Health Information System is mandatory, while the person can personally control who does or does not have access to it. At the same time, it is important that people have access to their health data and can use it across borders. A good example of this is the implementation of cross-border digital prescription services in Europe by 2020 at the latest. The cross-border movement of health data allows Europeans to also use this information to get better treatment results in other member states.
Data security must be ensured
In May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation will enter into force in the European Union, establishing uniform principles for the protection and free movement of personal data. The regulation allows member states to make certain exceptions in processing health data, which is why the cooperation and information exchange between member states is important for ensuring that the implementation of the regulation does not cause obstructions for the free movement of data. The question is not whether e-services are secure, but rather how we could use them in a secure way.
The Estonian Presidency highlights the topic of e-health in the discussions among European ministers
Estonia’s aim during the Estonian Presidency is to lead the Council of the European Union to conclusions that would establish cross-border political guidelines for devising e-health policies and activities over the coming years, to hasten and expand the use of health data across borders. One of the goals is to achieve an agreement between states regarding a number of specific joint digital project initiatives to be implemented and funded by the member states together with the European Commission.
The last time that health ministers covered the subject of e-health on a political level was in 2009 during the Swedish Presidency when the basis for the joint action between member states was created. Estonia is interested in an active but balanced discussion. The health ministers will discuss the topics of e-health in July at an informal meeting in Tallinn, and in October at a high-level conference also held in Tallinn.
The e-health conference will bring top speakers and organisations in the field to Estonia
At the conference held on 16–18 October, the topics include better access to people’s personal health data and control over its use, cross-border movement of health data, its use in research and development activities, and creating conditions for a digital single market in the field of healthcare. The three-day event will bring policy makers of the European Union, health ministers of member states, patient representation organisations, IT and private sectors, healthcare managers, doctors, and scientists to Tallinn.
In order to hasten innovation in the development of digital health services and the use of personal data, a platform of cooperation in the field of digital healthcare – the Digital Health Society - was summoned at the E-Health Week in Malta by Estonia to keep the good momentum. Since then we have seen an unprecedented level of interest in it. Nearly one hundred organisations from all across Europe have already volunteered to work on the Digital Health Society including patient organisations, academic and industry bodies, healthcare providers and payers, and national and regional governments.
The prediction is that during the Tallinn e-health conference a joint declaration, and concrete action commitments will be signed to support and complement the implementation of a digital single market in the healthcare domain. To achieve this, work by dedicated taskforces has begun led by representatives from the Netherlands, Ireland, Finland and Estonia.
Hopefully soon, a digital society will help improve the health of all Europeans more than ever before.