Revolutionising Europe’s healthcare services must take a citizen-centred approach and fully involve local authorities, the Committee of the Regions said today. Whilst welcoming plans to exploit new technology and digital tools in the delivery of services, building trust with patients and service providers must be at the heart of the EU's strategy on e-health. The Committee also warned that greater consideration must be given to putting in place measures to ensure that all EU citizens benefit to avoid increasing health disparities.
European Commission plans to advance eHealth until 2020 across the Union was the focus of debate during the Committee's July plenary. The opinion on eHealth, presented by Johan Sauwens (BE/EPP), Member of the Flemish Parliament, welcomes the proposals recognising that there is a growing need to bring the system up to date given the significant development in technology in recent years. eHealth, the Committee argue, will make better use of resources, save time and cut red tape improving the over quality of care for patients. Mr. Sauwens said, "Europe must heavily invest in an efficient e-Health system that delivers better healthcare at a lower cost". Mr. Sauwens draws attention to the large volumes of health, welfare and social care data often stored in separate systems, and argues that the information could be more effectively used helping create a health service that is more robust which, he pointed out, will, "bring doctors and patients closer together".
However eHealth depends on building trust with patients and healthcare providers: it is not a matter of simply putting in place the right legal and technological safeguards, but ensuring services users and providers are fully assured that personal information is protected and confidentiality not breached. Sauwen's opinion, unanimously backed by all the Committee's members, stresses that citizens must therefore have full control of their data, "The needs of patients must be at the heart of the eHealth revolution: patients have a right to take decisions on access to their data, and must be given a clear explanation of how this information will be used and by whom. eHealth should give citizens and patients the opportunity to take control of their own healthcare”, he added.
The opinion also served to highlight the importance of ensuring that all EU citizens are actively informed and engaged in the new services. It should be accessible to all citizens and designed to avoid accentuating health inequalities. The careful sharing of data among service providers can improve quality of care, access and information but Sauwens warns that this must include those with limited digital literacy and internet access. In this regard, involving Europe's local authorities is vital as significant amounts of data is held locally – by doctors and other service providers in communities – and, coupled with their understanding of the needs of each community, requires local and regional knowledge to successfully deliver programmes. The Committee therefore calls for the strengthening of interregional cooperation in Europe to support delivery and share best practise on eHealth. With the recent decision to ring-fence barely €1bn from the EU budget for digital services compared to the originally proposed €9.2bn, the Committee raises serious concern about the impact the cut to the Connecting Europe facility will have on inequality in the Union.
The Committee of the Regions
The Committee of the Regions is the EU's assembly of regional and local representatives from all 28 Member States. Its mission is to involve regional and local authorities and the communities they represent in the EU's decision-making process and to inform them about EU policies. The European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council are obliged to consult the Committee in policy areas affecting regions and cities. It can appeal to the EU Court of Justice if its rights are infringed or it believes that an EU law infringes the subsidiarity principle or fails to respect regional or local powers.
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