With public healthcare systems under pressure from an ageing population, governments are increasingly looking to information technology to provide relief.
Information technology is transforming heath care in Europe - but not nearly as fast as the EU would like. With that in mind, European health ministers are meeting in Spain this week to set long-term goals in ‘e-health,' a term that refers to healthcare supported by electronic products and services. It implies not only the application of new technology but also a more efficient way of working.
For the first time the annual gathering is being held in the same week and the same place - Barcelona - as another yearly conference on e-health - this one geared to healthcare professionals and IT specialists. Organised with help from the European commission, the forum is part trade show, featuring an exhibition of the latest trends in one of Europe's hottest new markets.
Spain, which currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, hopes that scheduling the two events to run parallel will encourage a broader exchange and accelerate the EU's e-health agenda.
In 2004 the commission began a push to develop the use of IT in the health sector. Electronic services are seen as key to the wider development of an integrated European health market and crucial to keeping a lid on rising costs. In the EU, spending on health accounts for between 4% and 11% of gross domestic product and between 10% and 18% of total government spending.
Taxpayer-funded healthcare systems are becoming more expensive to maintain because of increased demand for services, driven mainly by ageing populations. By mid-century, nearly 40% of the EU's population is expected to be more than 65 years old, and there will be fewer workers to pay their health bills.
In 2008, the EU identified e-health as one of six emerging markets where Europe has the potential to become a world leader. E-health is the third largest European health industry, after pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Examples of successful developments include information networks, electronic records and health portals.
If a large majority of European doctors now use computers to store and share medical information, few are taking advantage of other IT applications like electronic prescriptions and telemonitoring, which allows patients to be monitored remotely without having to come into the doctor's office. Exchange of patient data across borders is also rare, a big problem in an increasingly mobile world.