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Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

eHealth – empowering citizens and improving care

2011 Continua Personal Connected Health European Symposium

Brussels, 17 January 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here to open this important event. It is impressive to see so many of you from across the globe, committed to improving our society and well-being. I admire your dedication to turning our shared challenges into opportunities. And I congratulate you for your successes in developing real health and care solutions.

The issues that you will be covering over the next two days go to the heart of the European Commission's vision for innovation. Active and healthy ageing is at the very top of our list of innovation priorities.

I hope I am right in thinking that we speak the same language on these issues. My vision is one where technology empowers citizens and helps us to maintain a quality health and care system for all Europeans.

While there is great research and important pilots in place today – the fact remains that technology is not yet empowering most Europeans to manage their health. We cannot afford stagnation in this area. Europe is on the frontline of ageing population issues. With increasing health costs and decreasing number of care workers, any failure to radically improve our use of technology will spell disaster for Europe and individual Europeans.

So we have a challenge on our hands - especially when many citizens feel more generally that technology is passing them by. But we have a very good case to make. In spite of the fears and frustrations that many have, simple technologies exist to help us be much more involved in our own care. I mean, for example, the chance to engage in wellbeing exercises at the click of a mouse, or to avoid time-consuming visits to the doctor through telemonitoring and/or webcam check-ups. While these can be the simplest of tasks, such little changes often make the most difference to a busy life.

In my view, the services should not stop here. Why not be able to track the progress of lab tests, or even request a second opinion? Research shows that up to one-half of European adults may have searched online for health information. It makes sense, therefore, once a condition has been diagnosed, for patients to be able to find out more through accessing tailored information and advice.

Ultimately, given the right information, advice, and equipment, most people should be able to monitor their conditions and lifestyle. They should be able to do that in confidence, security and comfort. And in those ways technology should help us to build enhanced relationships with our doctors or carers. This is surely one of the keys to a better quality of life. And it is fundamental to the idea of Europe: a better life, in our preferred environment. Whether it is the place we call home, the place we are stationed for work, or the sunny place we retire to.

My point is that technology does not replace the "human touch"; it is simply a way to give people what they want. It helps doctors and carers fulfil their mission and help the system avoid unnecessary hospital stays.

Approaches like this will allow us to better respond to the challenges facing health and social care systems, support citizens, especially our older generation, and the economy.

In the UK, for example, health officials believe ICT enabled self-care could potentially reduce GP visits by 40% and hospital admissions by 50%. Not only that, length of hospital stays and days off work could also be reduced by 50%. As a result, people will have more time for themselves. We will have a health and care system based on wellbeing; not just fighting diseases. This is how it should work –managing conditions within a normal life, instead of disrupting that life in a traumatic way.

This is not just a fantasy. Like you, I have seen with my own eyes how citizens are already feeling the benefits. In Denmark, at the Ambient Assisted Living Forum, I recently saw elderly people loving the physiotherapy techniques taught to them via video. I saw also how an elderly lady with a chronic condition was living independently and happily in her own home, thanks to broadband and ICT devices.

But this is not about keeping people at home. On the contrary! We also want to enable people to enjoy travelling and their retirement. Together we need to build on the work of the epSOS pilot, in which some of you here have been involved. epSOS is validating and improving patient summaries and ePrescription solutions across borders. Success in this project will improve the lives of the hundreds of millions of Europeans who travel within the EU. The simple act of accessing a vital piece of information - such as an allergy or chronic condition - can literally save lives. It can also mean peace of mind for an elderly person with a chronic disease – allowing them to travel across borders without unnecessary anxiety.

I am very pleased that epSOS will soon be extended from 12 to 23 countries. The next step is to take this proof that wide agreement is possible and ensure a minimum set of patient data across all 27 countries.

Just one month ago, on an official visit to the United States, I had the pleasure and privilege to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on cooperation surrounding health related information and communications technologies.

The signing of the MoU - which builds upon the work of epSOS - is a confirmation of our shared vision. It is an important step in tackling market fragmentation by creating global conditions for common approaches to interoperability and standardisation. We hope that this first step will help to open up new global opportunities for companies - big and small.

So as you can see, we have the potential to open up a world of opportunities not only for healthcare, but also for social interaction, physical exercise, mobility, life-long learning according to each individual's needs.

To keep us moving forward on this path we need some ambitious goals, so that 'potential' becomes 'reality'.

Both the "Digital Agenda for Europe" and the pilot European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for Active and Healthy Ageing commit us to join up our efforts to not only improve technology, but pull down the legal and organisational barriers that are preventing progress among EU Member States.

By 2020 we want to achieve widespread deployment of telemedicine services. As part of our Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme, we are already inviting interested stakeholders to come together and reach consensus on concrete solutions to help us achieve this goal. As part of the same programme, we are also calling upon stakeholders to pilot systems for patients to access to their health data and enable online health services. The Commission indeed calls for a minimum common set of patient data that can be accessed or exchanged electronically across Member States.

We are aiming to reinforce the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme, following the encouraging findings of its first interim evaluation. This is in line with the objectives of the pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing whose essential aim is to increase quality of life, by bridging gaps between research and innovation with large scale deployments.

I know that many of you have been involved in the stakeholder event and consultation on this subject. I also expect that the discussions that will take place in this forum over the next two days will be extremely informative to this process.

The EIP represents a new approach and a new direction for us. It provides a historic opportunity to confront our demographic destiny. It is the starting point for building a new industry and new quality of life for our elderly.

But important though it is – EIP is just one tiny piece in a bigger puzzle. Please get involved and please think about your wider role in this personal, connected health revolution. This revolution is a joint effort. We all have our part to play. We all have an obligation to get the stagnant situation in European healthcare moving.

How can you really make a difference? Start by identifying what leverage you have. And clearly separate what is a technical and people issues. In my view most of the difficulties aren't about whether the technology works. It's about whether the technology is trusted and how it is embedded in health and care practice.

If you are a doctor you have the trust of your peers – talking with them will build support for the role of ICTs. If you are an insurer consider what incentives you can offer to spread the use of the ICTs that bring down your costs. Most importantly, have a clear view of what decisions you are going to take personally to make these changes.

Most of all, let this conference be a place where you find inspiration and focus your thoughts to take these decisions. If we all do that over the next days, the joint action we need will come to life.

Now is the best time to make this concerted effort, and I sincerely hope you will join me in that. Let's get all of your great ideas and pilots, out of the laboratory stage and into the day-to-day life of all Europeans.

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