Citizens are key players in the digital transformation of health

15 October 2020

All Policies for a Healthy Europe

Digital health has been around for decades. Cynics would even say that technology has long overpromised and underdelivered. However, its true potential to improve citizens’ health & well-being has recently reached a greater level ofgeneral awareness. Citizens’ interest in digital healthcare is on the rise, but the acceptance of digital tools is too often hindered by concerns such as privacy and security.

I see this underlying tension between enthusiasm and apprehension unfold every day as the Deputy Chair of the European Connected Health Alliance. To resolve it, I believe all stakeholders – including policymakers, patient representatives, healthcare professionals and the private sector – should focus their work on tailoring the development of digital health to citizens. This is precisely the goal of the Digital Working Group of the multi-stakeholder initiative All Policies for a Healthy Europe, which I have the honour of chairing.

First, we need to truly foster citizens’ digital health skills. I recently had a discussion with Mr Nick Schneider, Head of division on new Technologies and data use at the German Federal Ministry of Health, during which he highlighted the need for digital skills and health literacy to ‘go hand in hand’. The new European Digital Education Action Plan will hopefully be a step in the right direction.

Second, the development of a trustworthy and efficient European Health Data Space is vital to get citizens on board. An EU Code of Conduct could ensure that citizens’ privacy right under the GDPR are respected while guaranteeing sufficient harmonization of health data processing in the EU. I also support Commissioner Breton’s call for an EU public consultation on the use of health data, as it will give all stakeholders the opportunity to have their say on a topic that will profoundly change healthcare systems.

Thirdly, citizens should be able to understand how and why Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used to care for them, while healthcare professionals should be equipped with the right skills to use AI and explain its benefits clearly to their patients. Research and education to enhance the explainability of AI in health must be put high on the agenda for citizens to embrace its uptake. Moreover, earning the trust of citizens will only be possible if the use of AI is based on strong ethical guidelines.

Of course, these are just a range of ideas and it will be up to the policymakers to decide which instruments in the toolbox are best suited to make citizens understand and trust the benefits that digital health can bring to them. I am convinced that to build a more resilient Europe, citizens should be given the means to reap the full potential of digital health solutions.

MedTech and technology have a crucial role to play in this process, by developing innovation for new treatments, devices and services, improving health outcomes, facilitating prevention and well-being and helping health and care systems to be financially sustainable. What an opportunity for the industry!

Bleddyn Rees

Bleddyn is a vastly experienced commercial and international healthcare lawyer. He is Deputy Chair of the European Connected Health Alliance and Chair of the Digital Health Society. Bleddyn is on the Industry Advisory Board of Digital Health London and the Commercial Board of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

Bleddyn chairs the Digital Working Group of All Policies for a Healthy Europe. He has a special interest in Digital Health and Medtech.

He has unique experience for a private sector lawyer having spent almost four years seconded to the Commercial Directorate of the UK Department of Health as General Counsel.

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