COVID-19: speeding up digital health and meeting people’s needs

Among many other developments, COVID-19 is said to have increased the pace of digitalisation in many countries across Europe, including a boost to the digital transformation of health and care. While, prior to the pandemic, e/mHealth remained a blurry notion in places where the level of digital readiness in healthcare was low, one potentially positive side effect of the pandemic has been that it made digital solutions more tangible to Europeans, with large numbers of people able to experience their added value for the first time via telemedicine consultations or apps that facilitate administrative functions, provide health information and enable patient-professional dialogue.

With the development and implementation of a European Health Data Space as an important building block of the European Commission’s new digital strategy spanning most economic sectors, and EU policymakers keen to harness the many possibilities offered by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare to improve prevention, treatments, continuity of care, communication and collaboration and thereby help create more efficient, sustainable and resilient health systems, it will be important to ensure ‘buy-in’ from end-users: healthcare professionals and managers, patients, and ordinary people, many of whom have not been able to keep up with the plethora of digital health innovations they could and should benefit from or else they simply have not had exposure. After all, there can be no ‘digital health policy revolution’ without trust in the usefulness, safety, and meaningfulness of digital tools; in turn, this means they need to be sufficiently adaptable to different needs, as well as different levels of digital health literacy and skills, to achieve critical mass and safeguard that no-one is left behind in the aftermath of the health system crisis.

Having advocated the importance of end-user involvement and acceptance for over a decade, EPHA was interested in how the introduction of new digital health solutions during the pandemic crisis has been perceived by the public, and whether investments made at the national and regional levels have paid off. Therefore, we asked our members to provide some insightful examples, which have been included in a new case study collection, ‘The impact of COVID-19 on the digital transformation of health and care’.

The paper discusses COVID-19 as an accelerator of digital health in the EU – albeit not everywhere and across the board, given that existing eHealth infrastructures and available investment determine what is possible. Nonetheless, mobile health and coronavirus apps, as well as telemedicine services and tools enabling virtual contacts between patients and healthcare professionals appear to be among the services introduced in most countries and/or regions.

The case study collection includes snapshots of digital health offers created or expanded in six countries (PL, HR, DE, MT, SE, FR) and assesses the pros and cons of their introduction. While the examples are meant to be anecdotal in the sense that EPHA neither had the means nor the capacity to conduct an in-depth study, the findings might nevertheless provide some indicative insights for the benefit of policymakers and other health stakeholders wishing to learn more about the factors at play and the perception of these tools among end users – in the hope that it will trigger further initiatives to foster opportunities for co-creation and inclusive societal dialogue about digital health policies.

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