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Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda

eHealth: challenges and opportunities for the future

Opening of the Ministerial eHealth Conference

Budapest, 10 May 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here in Budapest at the beginning of the eHealth Week.

The theme of the conference is "Investing in Health Systems of the Future".

Many of you may find this surprising. After all, in these challenging times of austerity, "investment" is not a word that we hear very often.

We are more used to hearing about the challenges facing our healthcare systems. And let's be frank, there are many.

Quite apart from budget cuts, over the next 20 years, the number of Europeans aged over 65 is expected to rise by 45% from 85 million in 2008 to 123 million in 2030. This will have a huge social, economic, and health impact.

The related rise in chronic conditions will also increase the stress on social and care services, raising questions about the sustainability of the European social model.

These challenges are very real. And we should not shy away from them.

But rather than despairing, we should look at how we can turn these challenges into opportunities.

And this eHealth Week is the perfect setting to do so.

Since its inception in 2003, it has evolved from a "niche" conference into the major event on Europe's eHealth calendar.

The diversity and sheer number of participants in one location clearly demonstrates how much interest, enthusiasm and energy there is across the board in eHealth. And how much we can learn from each other.

I share this sense of excitement, and I'm very happy to be here with you. This is the place where challenges and opportunities converge. And this week, the momentum is surely with us.

I am extremely impressed by the bold vision set out by the Hungarian Presidency in its Presidency Declaration, which demonstrates that there is real momentum in taking eHealth forward in Europe.

Recent commitments on eHealth and chronic diseases show that all Member States also want to be more ambitious when it comes to eHealth.

I fully support and encourage these developments.

I have seen from my own visits across Europe that there are so many innovative solutions out there that can provide benefits to individuals, healthcare systems, society and the economy.

For me, it would be simply unacceptable if public policymakers did not commit to giving patients access to these solutions, even if this requires investment and structural changes to our health systems, especially as we now have so much evidence that eHealth works. Allow me to give some examples:

The world class Danish Health Data Network provides fast and efficient communication between patients, general practitioners and social care professionals. This streamlined services for patients and healthcare workers led by 2008 to cumulative savings of €1. 4 Billion.

In the UK in 2008, NHS Direct services saved 2.4 million unnecessary appointments with GPs as well as 1.2 million unnecessary ambulance journeys and visits to accident and emergency departments.

Introducing telecardiology in the Lombardy Region of Italy led to a 36% decrease in hospital readmissions and a 12% reduction of outpatient visits.

A recent study across The Netherlands, UK and Germany showed that introducing home telemonitoring systems could improve survival rates by 15%, bring a 26% reduction in hospital days per patient and make 10% overall cost savings through nurse telephone support.

There is so much that we can learn from each other. So what is stopping us from biting the bullet and seizing the opportunities of eHealth?

An integrated approach to eHealth, where systems "talk to each other" in a user–friendly manner is an important ingredient for success. But this can mean a significant investment that may only reap visible rewards many years down the line.

This therefore calls for forward-looking funding mechanisms and innovative business models to incorporate the future benefits and savings into our investment decisions of today.

I understand that in tough economic times like now, instant results may seem a more attractive prospect. But, as I said earlier, we shouldn't shy away from tough challenges; especially when the sustainability of our care systems is at stake.

Perhaps even more important is engaging professionals and patients and gaining their trust and acceptance. This requires a significant investment of time and energy

I realise that these are not simple hurdles to overcome and that there are many other complex issues which come into play – be they legal, technical, not to mention financial.

But let us not ignore the "elephant in the room". The demographic challenge will not go away, and we need to take steps now to be able to cope with it.

From the Commission's side, we want to do everything we can to help.

We are taking a fresh approach to innovation in our pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing where we want to turn the challenge of the ageing population into an opportunity; going for a triple win of:

enabling citizens to live independently for longer and in good health;

making the cost of care more sustainable;

increasing the market of innovative products and our global competitiveness.

Above all, it is about partnership: linking up the people who are willing to commit their contribution but still need support from someone else for joint success in Europe.

We have already set important targets to give patients secure access to their medical data for the widespread deployment of telemedicine. Along with Member States we are now stepping up investments in piloting interoperable cross-border services for patients. I'm happy to say that 23 countries are now on board.

Building on this experience, we hope that soon patients will benefit from safer, high quality healthcare wherever they may be in the EU.

This new approach and new momentum will be laid out in a new action plan for eHealth which the Commission plans to launch before the end of the year.

But what I want to see from Member States is commitments turned into actions. We should:

Set targets

Existing evidence suggests that by increasing the use of telemedicine and tele-monitoring solutions we could:

- cut by up to 10% the hospitalisation of chronic heart failure patients

- reduce the use of healthcare resources by diabetes patients by as much as 10% while ensuring that their condition is managed in the best way. Now is the time to set targets and timelines to achieve them and agree on indicators for monitoring and measurement.

Look around you

eHealth Week brings together diverse delegates from across the world. Go to the World of Health IT exhibition, talk to the people on the ground who are making real eHealth solutions and be inspired.

Work in partnership

We are stronger and more successful when we work together. We have seen this through our pan-European eHealth pilots and we are taking this approach in the EIP; where the collaboration with my colleagues John Dalli and Maire Geoghegan-Quinn is showing its first concrete results. The fragmented world of healthcare requires stakeholders to connect across silos to unlock the true value that eHealth innovations can bring.

And finally:

Invest your time and energy now for the future These may be tough economic times, but don't forget that in 20 years the "demographic challenge" will be you.

Thank you for you attention.

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