European healthcare 'online by 2008'

Technology will make everything easier. No, really

The European Commission has launched the e-Health action plan, a campaign aimed at getting Europeans to use communication and information technologies to support healthcare services.

The plan covers everything from electronic prescriptions and computerised health records to using new systems and services to cut waiting times and reduce errors. The Commision says it will contribute to better care at the same or lower cost.

The main goal is a pan-European e-Health area, complete with health entitlement cards, patient identifiers, electronic records and high speed Net access for doctors. These are the very areas being addressed by the UK's £2.3bn NHS IT programme, and the EC cites NHS Direct Online as a golden example of "eHealth in action".

The Commission wants countries to meet three major targets:

  • by 2005 member states should have roadmaps for e-Health, and an EU public health portal should be up and running
  • by 2006, fundamentals like patient identification and a common approach to data and networking standards should be well advanced.
  • by 2008 health information networks, both fixed and wireless, should be commonplace. They should also use Grid computing to boost power and make it easier for the systems to interact.

According to the Commission, up to five per cent of health budgets will be invested in eHealth systems and services by 2010. The idea is that the money diverted from directly dealing with patients can be justified because the technology will save time and money, in the long run.

However serious the Commission is about the idea of a seamless, integrated, pan-European health network, the implementation must happen at country level. Going by the UK's progress, there could be a few hiccups along the way.

This week, for example, the British Medical Association (BMA) has joined MPs and the National Audit Office in criticising the government over the NHS IT programme, saying doctors have not been adequately consulted about its implementation.

John Powell, chairman of the BMA’s committee for IT told Computer Weekly: "Evaluation needs not only to demonstrate value for money for taxpayers, but also to offer clinicians improved, usable systems."

MP Richard Bacon, a member of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), has already written to the National Audit Office (NAO) to highlight the issue. In his letter, he said that the NHS has "failed to consult users adequately and has studiously avoided redesigning business processes in parallel with the new technology - thereby ignoring various NAO and PAC recommendations."

More information on the European Commissions plan is available here and more on the forthcomming eHealth Ministerial Conference is here. ®

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