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As part of the European Policy Centre’s current series of events on digitalisation, a recent event organised on 8 April addressed the potential impacts of new technologies on healthcare, with a particular focus on healthcare professionals. To what extent is the current hype about digital health and care, fuelled by growing expectations of the transformative powers of the strategic application of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence in health, justified? And how does this change the everyday reality of Europe’s health workforce whose adaptability is already strained by shortages, burnout and budgets cuts as part of health system restructuring?

According to Luis Velez Lapao of the New University of Lisbon, a realistic approach must be taken with regard to digital health and care. Not everything currently being promoted on the market is useful or practical, and the real value of certain digital technologies will emerge over time.  It will be especially important to ensure that digital solutions are compatible with existing health system structures and patient management processes, and workforce strengthening will be critical to ensure the best possible match between digital technologies and healthcare workers’ skills.  Lack of usability and problems related to work organisation continue to present a major obstacle at present, all too often adding extra work time or resulting in duplication of effort.  According to Professor Lapao, the problem is not lack of trust in technology’s transformative power, but lack of investment in the processes and skills required to effectively integrate new technologies into work routines

These views were echoed by Ana Llena-Nozal of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development who presented data showing that, for a majority of healthcare professionals – and especially the most educated, the impact of digitalisation is likely to remain fairly limited and it will be more a matter of co-existence rather than replacement given the importance of the human factor in healthcare. Many of the changes are already occurring and they are more subtle than the hype suggests; digital solutions include assistive technologies, they enable remote care, better disease monitoring, improved social care and self-management. However, many health workers report being under-skilled and unprepared for digital healthcare.

At the same time, the evidence base on what’s working remains slim for the time being and it is often difficult to separate the “noise” generated by the technology industry, e.g. about  robotics and A.I., from the real changes that are taking place, which also involve important ethical and practical considerations on how digital “fits” into fragmented, often disorganised health system structures. In line with EPHA’s recommendations on the digital transformation of health and care, both speakers argued in favour of ensuring that new technologies should bring a proven value for assisting healthcare workers and for enhancing patient and health system outcomes. In other words, fostering innovation and creating enabling digital ecosystems must go hand in hand with involving end users so that everybody will reap the benefits and Europe’s ailing health systems can be improved.

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