Digital health has potential but needs to be secure

The Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU has put e-health under the political spotlight once again.

But this year's cyberattacks - affecting the UK's National Health Service (NHS) and targeted at consumer credit company Equifax in the United States - has highlighted how vulnerable sensitive personal, social security and health data can be to hackers - writes euobserver.com.

Within the EU, Estonia is considered a digital leader. The country was ranked sixth overall in a recent report on data innovation in the EU .

The victim of a major cyberattack in 2007 (the first known on an entire country) - that took down internet sites and servers of media outlets, banks and government bodies - Estonia has recovered by investing greatly in data and cybersecurity.

Healthcare blockchain

One of Estonia's flagship digital health policies is to put its citizens' medical records on blockchain.

The encrypted, peer-to-peer method of storing data is seen by the Estonian government as a good bet to keep its citizens data safe from malicious state or criminal attempts to access it.

Estonia is far ahead of many other EU member states, where patient records may not even be digitised.

A change in the government's mindset, first prompted by security risks, has now developed into genuine digital enthusiasm over the past decade. It came about by understanding the benefits of delivering public services online and engaging citizens directly.

The investment has also proved to be a boost for Estonian tech companies and entrepreneurs.

Digital health and big data are particularly exciting because solutions have been presented for all the biggest public health challenges.

Consider the case of cervical cancer screening. Currently, the holders of healthcare purse-strings may primarily set a crude barrier - age - to decide when women are to be offered screening. While risk clearly does increase with age, other risk factors are not properly taken into account - such as diet, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Cross-fertilisation of data could enable more targeted screening for women who are "at risk" for cervical cancer, and allow healthcare providers to identify specific individuals.

This allows healthcare spending to be far more accurately targeted.

Targeted care

Involving citizens in their own health and well-being is another notable area of digital promise.

Deeper understanding of genetics, in tandem with technological progress, will drive an ever more personalised approach to healthcare. This is essential in an ageing society where antiquated financial models are already stretched.

At the e-Health Tallinn 2017 Conference, the EU commissioner for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, pointed out how only two percent of healthcare spending by EU member states is for prevention. So much for the mantra 'prevention is better than cure'.

The growing use of health, well-being and fitness apps points to an encouraging trend of self-analysis and behavioural change.

Users of running and cycling apps, for example, have show the motivation factor of self-tracking. Health practitioners hope to tap into this instinct to improve public health.

Traditional healthcare companies, and new entrants to healthcare - such as tech companies and app developers - are racing to bring new digital technologies to patients.

While governments and healthcare companies repeatedly assert their credentials as part of the next wave of change in technology and healthcare. However, their impact on daily lives remain minimal.

Policymakers can, however, make a bigger difference on citizens' access to emerging technologies by making clear and logical legislation for health products and data protection which will ensure rapid assessment of safety and efficacy of apps and products.

Fast technology, slow legislation

The rapid pace of technological change makes this difficult - as legislation is soon rendered out of date.

The European Commission, European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cooperate to try to stay ahead of the curve and seek regulatory convergence. However, the breadth and depth of applying types of technology, such as artificial intelligence, will only become more challenging.

And balancing user and societal benefit with privacy and security is more important in digital health than in other applications of new technology.

A clear explanation to the public on the potential value of big data for social good will be essential to build trust.

To become a genuine early-adopter of technology, like Estonia, requires high-level governmental and medical community commitment, and consistent investment over the long term.

Funding for appropriate digital health technologies will have to come from decidedly traditional budget holders in healthcare, governments, insurers and individuals purchasing private healthcare.

To reassure citizens that their data is in good hands, equivalent investment on security will be necessary.

But the irony of governments professing to be digital health leaders - when IT infrastructures in hospitals still routinely use long-forgotten versions of the Windows operating system - is not lost on healthcare professionals.

Steve Bridges is an independent health policy adviser in Brussels. His Health Matters column takes a closer look at health-related policies, issues and trends in the EU.

Read other news of Tallinn on our site.

euobserver.com
Digitalhealth
If you notice an error, highlight the text you want and press Ctrl + Enter to report it to the editor
1 view in march
I recommend
No recommendations yet

Comments

Post your comment to communicate and discuss this article.

Politics
Chairman of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and one of the owners of construction group Nordecon, Toomas Luman, finds that a prime ministerial candidate should first and foremost be able to answer the question of what will become of the demographic crisis in Estonia. The businessman sees controlled introduction of foreign labor as the solution. A digital construction cluster was created in Estonia a few years back to bring innovation to the s...
Society
Last year saw 27,125 registered offenses, up 0.5 percent from the year before. Violent crime was up by 12 percent to 8,249 offenses. PHOTO: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire / Press Association Images / Scanpix Growth was biggest for domestic violence – the police launched criminal proceedings in 3,607 cases that constitutes an increase of more than one-third – annual growth of 37 percent from 2,632 cases in 2017. At the same time, reports of domestic violence we...
Society
TALLINN - Ahead of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, tens of thousands of British citizens have chosen the citizenship of some other country, but only one Brit has recently chosen an Estonian citizenship. Spokespeople for the Ministry of the Interior told BNS that only one British citizen submitted an application for Estonian citizenship last year and the applicant was also granted the citizenship. Before that, no Brits had soug...
Society
TALLINN - Experts from Finland, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands highlighted the importance of decentralization and granting local governments greater decision-making powers at a conference titled "Strong local government -- strong state?" in Tallinn on Wednesday.  All Nordic countries have chosen a model granting local governments significant decision-making powers, thus the central government does not prescribe how local governments are to fulfill the...
Society
The language learning application Drops by game developer Planb Labs, established in Estonia by Hungarian founders, was named Google Play's best app of 2018. With the number of downloads surpassing 10 million, Drops was named Google's app of the year as the revenue of Planb Labs, a company registered in Estonia, increased fivefold, CNBC said. The developer's revenue grew from €335,000 in 2017 to €1.7 million in 2018. The company's shareholders include Hung...
Society
TALLINN - The Estonian Health Board has banned the distribution of chlorine dioxide, also marketed as the Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS), the A-component of an unused product, meaning the sodium chlorite solution, must be taken to a hazardous waste collection facility. Ester Opik, head of the Health Board's North regional department, said that the banning of the distribution of the product was caused by the fact that MMS, distributed as a cosmetics produ...
Society
Nature cannot abide a vacancy, as the saying goes. If just one year ago, Estonia was battling the sale of MMS and the practice of giving it to children, a new “miracle cure” called Advanced TRS has appeared on the market now. Even though the make-up of the substance is different, the promise to cure autism and cleanse the body of heavy metals, which kind of extreme detox is accompanied by severe side-effects, sounds all too familiar. TRS is recommended to...
Society
Allied NATO battalions will soon mark two years serving in the Baltics. They have worked better than expected but would need prepositioned heavy weaponry and a functional contingency plan in case of a crisis, a report by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) finds. “We do not know how Russia would have acted had we not welcomed allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017. I’m afraid they would have tested our resolve,” one of...
Society
The time of filing income tax returns is nearly upon us. The new income tax system, in effect since last year, will obligate many women who went on maternity leave toward the end of the year to make additional income tax payments, while those who give birth in the middle or at the beginning of the year have no such obligation. What this means is that some women will owe the state simply for giving birth “at the wrong time”. Laura Roop, who went on maternit...