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by Marilena Vrana, European Heart Network

The COVID-19 pandemic has been and still is an immense challenge for everyone in Europe and beyond. Despite the tragedy of countless lives lost, it has also become a catalyst for change. The leap into digital technology use has been accelerated in all aspects of life, and health is certainly not exempt from needing to undergo a fast-paced transformation. The digital transformation in health has been on the policy and research agenda for years. Innovation and digital initiatives around telehealth, data analytics and artificial intelligence were well underway when restrictions arising from managing the pandemic forced the scaling up of those innovative tools to a whole new level. This created a monumental opportunity to reimagine health promotion, delivery, treatment and care.

The impact of the pandemic on cardiovascular health

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of improving people’s cardiovascular health. Already before the outbreak, cardiovascular disease (CVD) was the number one cause of death in Europe and the world. More than 60 million people live with CVD in the EU and nearly 13 million new cases of CVD are diagnosed each year. Pre-existing cardiovascular conditions are particularly important predictors of COVID-19 severity and mortality. At the same time, while COVID-19 primarily affects the lungs, it also affects the heart and the circulatory (vascular) system. Cardiovascular complications linked to COVID-19 are wide ranging and include incidence of thromboembolism, cardiac injury, arrhythmia and heart failure. It will be very difficult to turn a blind eye to this epidemiological fact in the future.

Unlocking the full potential of digital technologies for cardiovascular health

Improving cardiovascular health will have a positive impact on the resilience of our healthcare systems. EU wide collaboration efforts for digital transformation in health and policy initiatives, such as the European Health Data Space, offer promising opportunities to improve cardiovascular disease prevention, treatment, management and delivery of care if guided by a sound political and legal framework.

In primary prevention for example, mobile applications, monitoring sensors, online counselling and data generated from such tools, have the potential to improve early detection and prevention programmes, including lifestyle management interventions to reduce cardiovascular risk.

In healthcare, the use of remote monitoring, teleconsultation and telerehabilitation for cardiovascular patients could improve access to safe and effective care. Prudent integration of digital innovations into traditional health services and an optimal combination of inpatient and outpatient healthcare delivery, may lower waiting times, improve patients’ engagement and widen their possibilities to seek and benefit from quality healthcare, wherever they reside.

The introduction of electronic health records has led to an exponential growth in health data availability. Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence may be useful to:

  • stratify populations into risk groups to improve early-detection of cardiovascular disease. Designing quality-assured and targeted screening pathways for selected high-risk groups will be a major contributor;
  • boost clinical and pharmacological research and innovation in the cardiovascular field. Conducting more targeted and multi-country clinical trials will save costs and time, without compromising the safety of patients;
  • assess whether existing therapies and treatments are producing patient-relevant outcomes;
  • identify unmet needs. It will also drive public and private investments for research, innovation and development towards addressing those needs.

The importance of co-creation

Co-creation of digital tools and digital health policies with patients are instrumental in exploiting the potential of digitalisation in cardiovascular health. Involving patients from the outset is a powerful method, whereby patients’ concerns and expectations are taken into consideration regarding the use of digital technologies for diagnostics, pharmacological and medical devices development and healthcare delivery. The most reliable pathway to ensuring efficacy and trustworthiness in digital innovations is to involve patients at the heart of the co-creation and shared decision-making process.

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