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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Digital Agenda
Digital Technologies for Ageing Well – the European Union Strategy from Research to Reality
Address at AAL Joint Programme Forum 2010
Odense, 15 September 2010
Dear Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Danish Ministry for Science, Technology and Innovation and the AAL Association for inviting me to this second AAL Joint Programme conference.
It is very appropriate that a major conference on ageing and technology takes place in the Southern Denmark region which is by now well-known for its strategy concerning welfare technology. Denmark is a beacon for innovation in care. President Obama's key health advisers have said that Denmark is the country they follow – what a compliment and example to all of us in Europe.
What impresses me most about the Danish system is that while it is enabled by technology, it is motivated by the desire to care better for older citizens in particular. This is therefore about the people. The technology is the means but not the end.
So in many ways I feel like I am here at a conference about quality of life, rather than one about technology. It is inspiring to see the progress all of you here are making towards offering independence and dignity to our older citizens – not to mention comfort and peace of mind. That applies to both the elderly and their family. And in doing so we are helping to ensure our elderly can continue playing an active role in our societies – as grandparents, in their professions, as people with important perspectives to offer at all levels of life.
My overall goal as Digital Agenda Commissioner is to maximise the positive impact of information and communications technologies on daily life. Given that we are all very aware of our own aging this makes our work on ageing one of the most inspiring parts of the job. Together we are transforming the idea of the elderly as burdens in society – the work of AAL and other programmes enables our elderly to act and be viewed as the real assets to society that they are. Today's elderly are the generation that built Europe up from the rubble of war. They made the EU what it is today, and it is humbling to be able to offer something in return for that service via programmes like AAL.
Why is demographic ageing so important?
But while these developments are inspiring to many, to others they cause no more than a shrug of the shoulders. That is usually because those people have not thought about the mechanics of how our care systems really work. They see that Europeans are living ever longer and in better health than ever before. But their mistake is to take recent progress for granted.
We can't afford to do that for the simple reason that our future care needs are so vastly different from when the majority of our health and social care systems were designed.
What worked 20, 40 or 60 years ago will not be sustainable for much longer. Today in Europe there are still 4 people in employment for every retired person. By 2025 this will drop to 3 to 1 and by 2050 to only 2 to 1!
If we do not take action, additional costs of pensions and care may be as high as 8% of GDP. In particular, the cost of caring for the frail and elderly over 80 will rise.
In addition there is going to be a shortage of qualified care workers as demand for care increases and the labour market shrinks. Here in Denmark around 25% of the people currently working in the care sector are expected to retire in the next 5 years. What started as a "baby boom" (after WWII) could easily end as a "care bust" - as former carers and taxpayers become patients instead.
So these profound demographic changes require us to re-think care. We need to help the elderly to be self-sufficient and to make the system more self-sufficient at the same time. It is through this new mindset that we can secure the long-term future of one of our greatest achievements in Europe: universal health and social care.
By making good use of ICTs, the shift away from acute and institutionalised care towards long-term and home-based care can be our way of securing continued independent, high-quality and self-sufficient living.
To get there, Europeans need to work together. The challenge of ageing well and the challenge of making the best use of ICTs are going to be ever-present in our lives for decades to come. So it makes good sense to join forces and share best practices. For example the recent initiative by the Danish Finance Ministry to promote introduction of innovation in the care sector through technology (the ABT Fund) is a very interesting case to share with other countries.
How can information and communication technologies contribute to ageing well?
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) will change the dynamics in this field as it has already done in the world of consumer-business. I firmly believe this. In market terms, the real beauty of the caring industries is that they offer more than the potential for a strong home base. There is a guaranteed potential for global expansion for the best digital care innovations. Our job is to make use of this potential for Europe's overall interests.
So many mutual interests meet over our need to deliver care more sustainably, and we have much of the technology at hand. We now need to move it out of the pilot stage and into the market and also beyond Europe.
Doing this will create many thousands of high-paying jobs, it will improve the quality of life of millions, and it will reduce financial burdens on future generations.
I could see this instantly in the exhibition and through my meetings this morning. It was also very exciting to read last month about developments such as the iStethoscope application. This European idea – from a British researcher – is being used by more than 3 million doctors. It costs less than one euro to download and it turns a smartphone into a stethoscope. It might have started as a fun toy – but this application proves how mobile phones can save lives, especially in remote areas.
Whatever the case, from safety to preventing falls, overcoming social isolation, cognitive support, and mobility assistance, there is not one aspect of daily life that isn't helped through better integrating ICTs into care. A recent study conducted among the elderly population in the US indicated that even internet use can reduce depression by 20%! And that is just for those who need care! ICTs can also help the carers to work more efficiently (between 10% and 30%) by sharing information and allowing carers to support from a distance. I even heard of cases where contacts between carer and elderly doubled thanks to ICT eliminating bureaucracy.
At the practical level it is important to understand that ICT can also work to reduce problems like prescription errors. A Danish study also showed that simply solving problems like poor handwriting were leading causes of such errors in Europe – where having many languages can also be a complicating factor – we can save hundreds of thousands from the effects of such mistakes by better integrating ICT into care.
If the solutions are all so great, and the needs are so pressing, why does it then not all happen by itself? I think there are various reasons accounting for "market hesitation".
There is still a lack of awareness of market opportunities and of the needs of elderly people. 50% of older people are willing to buy new solutions, but 50% also cannot find the products and services they need in the market today. Fragmentation of efforts and markets leads to high costs of development and validation and lack of critical mass. That hampers further investment in innovation, in particular when it is an SME making the investment.
There are simply too many rules around for reimbursement, or at least we badly need clarity on the payment for innovative solutions. One way forward may be to develop more solutions for the consumer market.
There are also other unresolved legal and technological barriers, such as lack of interoperability and standardisation, privacy, ethics.
The wider policy context
The message here is that we do not have room for complacency. We need to act and we can do so. The European Commission has launched the Digital Agenda for Europe as a way to mobilise these efforts. It is a comprehensive action plan that addresses both the social and economic drivers of the need to embrace ICTs. We need it to be comprehensive so that it can have a real impact.
In the area of ICT for ageing well we are pushing comprehensive EU support for research and innovation. This includes the 7th Framework Programme with a longer term research perspective, the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme which focuses on market oriented research, and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme with larger scale pilot projects which aim to demonstrate the socio-economic impact of innovative solutions based on current technology. Together, these programmes leverage more than one billion Euros between 2008 and 2013 for research and innovation in ICT & Ageing.
It provides huge opportunities to make Europe the hub for new global markets in this emerging field. It should position us as world leaders – not just in pilots or with the AAL programme – but over the long-term.
The AAL programme is also a real innovation in European R&D collaboration. It successfully brings together 23 European countries with financial support from the EU. Countries have stepped up their financing of the programme well beyond the minimum required. This is a very important point. Acting alone individual countries would achieve much less than they have by joining forces in the AAL. What is more, the programme has a 40% involvement of SMEs. This is another example that must be spread across future research efforts. Whether it is building up work such as web-based health coach systems in Belgium and cross-border cooperation between Italy and Slovenia on long-term care, AAL shows us a way forward.
This is a good example of what Europe can do when we put our resources together – and that is thanks to all of you.
Your personal efforts – as organisers and participants – represent the Digital Agenda at its best. Improving lives and helping to secure our social safety net.
You and the projects on display this week are the embodiment of excellence in European research, technology and development and the proof that European research and digital policy are at the service of concrete social challenges. This also is a unique gathering of stakeholders from users, industry, research and policymakers to develop and exchange good practice across Europe.
The next big challenge, one that the European Commission strongly pursues, is bringing these research results to become part of the daily life of the largest part of European elderly people.
This is my call to you: to drive the full success of research into the market and make a real difference for millions of elderly Europeans.
The next steps
Let me briefly outline the next steps.
Building on the ongoing EU Action Plan for Ageing Well, addressing demographic change is a clear priority of our Digital Agenda.
This event must be a template for how to increase awareness and exchange of good practice.
Money must also support co-operation: we will continue and reinforce the EU research and innovation efforts as there is a great potential for emerging technologies. The pilot projects with tens of regions clearly demonstrate and document the benefits and good practice of existing digital solutions. They are an essential element for success to be continued and expanded.
The continuation of the AAL Joint Programme will be a cornerstone in this effort. We are just completing an interim evaluation of the Programme. This will provide the strategic guidance for the future, building on the expertise and vision of a high-level panel guided by former European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
In addition, I intend to step up efforts to ensure that the large investments in research and innovation can lead to widespread availability and utilisation of ageing well products and services. I am very pleased that an Investment Forum was launched yesterday as a platform for great entrepreneurs and visionary investors to meet.
Finally I want to see EU, national and regional level policy better joined up. With my Commission colleagues I am exploring the idea of a European Innovation Partnership on active and healthy ageing.
I therefore call on all stakeholders from industry, user organisations, research and public authorities to actively contribute to all the activities ahead.
It is sometimes a long, hard road – but that is what we must expect given we are trying to create a revolution in care. But we have great reasons to try. This is after all going to affect the future of each of us. None of us wants to be seen as a burden, and with the innovations on display through AAL we can avoid that fate. We can and we are creating a more humane yet efficient care system. I wish you a successful conference in the next days here in Odense. You have my commitment that the European Union is backing you in your efforts.