In recent years, the European Commission has launched a number of initiatives and dedicated hundreds of millions of euros in funding to address the fact that 42% of EU citizens lack basic digital skills. This gap in digital literacy has become particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the digital transformation of healthcare has been propelled, raising questions about the accessibility of digital health technologies to ordinary people. With the legislative proposal for a European Health Data Space (EHDS) now on the table, improving people’s digital health literacy will be essential to empower them to harness the full potential of the EHDS.
Gaps between Western and Eastern Member States
While 92% of households in the EU had access to the internet in 2021, the vast majority of Eastern European member states fell below the average. In Bulgaria, the member state with the lowest internet access rate, 16% of households had no access to the internet compared to only 1% of households in Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Thus, it is not surprising that the distribution of digital skills follows the same geographical pattern in the EU – while 58% of EU citizens had at least basic digital skills, these percentages were the highest in Western states (Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland) and the lowest in Eastern states (Romania, Bulgaria and Poland).
While data on digital health literacy – the ability to use digital tools to search for and interpret health information – in the EU is scarce and outdated, research also shows that low rates of health literacy are also most commonly found in post-communist EU member states.
Addressing the abovementioned gaps within the EU is crucial to decrease health inequalities and particularly important in the age of fake news as health misinformation is widespread and easily accessible across a variety of digital channels.
Implications for the European Health Data Space
As one of the primary goals of the EHDS is to allow people to have a secure access to their electronic health records, it is first and foremost necessary to ensure that all EU citizens have access to the internet and other technology, such as smartphones, that will enable them to make use of their health records. Another prerequisite will be ensuring that people are sufficiently digitally and health literate, as simply having access to technology without understanding how to use it will not allow patients to make use of their electronic health records and make decisions about whom they are shared with.
All citizens should also be made aware of how their health data will be processed, stored, and used electronically, as well as who will have access to this data so that they can make informed decisions. This is particularly important for the secondary use of health data. Transparency around the EHDS, coupled with higher digital and health literacy, will encourage people to share their health data for research purposes, thus having a positive impact on health research and innovation.