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Neelie Kroes

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

Caring about caring

Meeting of the European Parliament Interest Group on Carers, European Parliament

Brussels, 11 October 2011

Thank you for inviting me here today.

We are all getting older: individually, and in society as a whole. In a sense, that's a credit to our health and care systems that so effectively protect and prolong life. The challenge for carers is to make those extra, later years as active, healthy and enjoyable as possible.

Just let me remind you how much carers' work means to society. Carers provide for the quality of life of many people. They protect the most vulnerable: the elderly, people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses. They are the not-so-visible engine powering our health and social care machine.

By this stage, you may be asking yourselves, this is all very good, but why is the Commissioner for the Digital Agenda talking to us about this?

Let me answer. I am not going to drown you in statistics but we all know the productivity challenge for the health and social care sector arising from the changing dependency ratio, and the tricky position of public finances in every country.

For me, for such a diagnosis there is just one treatment: to innovate everywhere. Innovate our human capital, by upgrading workforce skills. Innovate in how we organise and work together. And innovate by using new and proven technology.

Information and communications technology is a fundamental part of this innovation. It can address some of the most pressing policy challenges in the field of long-term care. And it can ensure economic inclusion and participation in society. Effective use of ICT in the care sector is good for everyone.

- Good for care recipients, helping them live longer in their own environment, staying independent and connected for longer;

- Good for carers, improving productivity so that they have less administrative time at their desk, and more face to face time with the patient.

- Good for informal carers and migrant care workers, who can stay in touch and avoid social exclusion;

- And good for public funds, providing a strong return on investment.

Let me give some examples:

In Hungary, the "Skype Care" project lets carers stay in touch with older dependent people. Experience has shown that most of the older people – even those with serious health problems – quickly overcome initial misgivings and catch on to using the technology.

In Bavaria, the SOPHIA project combines modern emergency call technology and video communication. Helping people with limited mobility lead independent, comfortable and secure lives at home, and helping family carers respond to situations that are too much to handle.

In the UK, the Telecare Scotland initiative, an investment in what was called ‘care partnerships’, cost 10.4 million pounds. But the cost was more than repaid – a return on investment of around 5 to 1 in fact, including 350,000 fewer care home bed days. Plus increased satisfaction for both carers and care recipients.

These are just some of the more inspiring examples. What have we learned from them, about the ingredients for a successful project using ICT in the care sector?

First, we need sustainable financing and business models. Uptake and scaling of ICT-based services is more successful in countries with national or regional programs for carers, as you have in Spain, Sweden and Finland. It works less well in countries where sudden policy changes can mean abrupt funding cuts for ICT services in the social care system.

Second, products and services must be user-friendly, and cater directly to the needs of patients and carers. Involving end-users in the design and implementation stages helps enormously.

Third, where innovative solutions have already proved their worth, we need to overcome the barriers to deployment, whether they relate to awareness, legal or cultural issues.

And fourth, we need to make services and applications properly integrated into the care delivery system.

None of these is easy. And neither I nor any one person in this room is able to achieve them alone: it requires all stakeholders to join up and work together.

That is why we have set up the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing.

The partnership seeks to enable citizens to live healthy, active and independent lives for longer – we want to give Europeans an extra two healthy years of life by 2020. It seeks to make the care sector more sustainable and efficient. And it seeks to give Europe the edge in this growing market, increasing our global competitiveness.

The Partnership is a new stakeholder-driven approach, to join up programmes, bridge innovation gaps, and improve innovation conditions. Above all, it is about linking up people: users, buyers, and innovators.

Working together, we want to identify areas in active and healthy ageing where innovation and ICT could have a great impact, but where specific barriers have so far prevented large scale introduction across Europe.

The resulting Strategic Implementation Plan, due next month in November, will present proposed actions.

And then the plan will be taken out there to the wider stakeholder community. The Commission itself will respond to the plan through a Communication, highlighting the actions we will take to support both the plan and the wider objectives of the Partnership I hope that we will convince many others who "care about caring" to engage with this. And that the European Parliament and Council in particular can also endorse our way forward.

For our part, I and my colleagues in the Commission are committed to mobilise the European Institutions, Member States and regional authorities. To urge them to lay down the right institutional, policy and regulatory framework and to enhance consistency and coherence of relevant funding and programmes.

But we could not do it without you. And so I am particularly happy that carers play such an active role within this European Innovation Partnership. Your expertise, enthusiasm and input are vital, and I hope you continue to ensure that the voice of carers is heard, and to act as ambassadors of this important project.

Thank you.

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