European policymakers must work towards better healthcare coordination and support while addressing preventable harm, writes Alojz Peterle MEP.

Patient safety is a major public health issue, with more than a quarter of EU citizens admitting to having an adverse experience while seeking healthcare and over half believing that patients might experience harm while in hospital care.

Unfortunately, there are grounds for such concerns. Every year an estimated 4.1 million patients acquire a healthcare associated infection in the EU and at least 37,000 die as a result.

According to the WHO, patient harm is the 14th leading cause of the global disease burden, making it comparable to other threats to human health such as tuberculosis and malaria. However, these harms are considered to be preventable with an effective patient safety strategy.

The challenges current national health systems face, such as ageing populations, rising chronic diseases, demands for healthcare and pressure on government budgets are increasing the risk around patient safety and highlighting the need for greater quality care.

Everyone agrees that healthcare systems need a different approach to enable more effective care delivery. With the latter in mind emergence of new digital technologies in healthcare can contribute to the shift towards more patient-centred and suitable systems.

Provided that the privacy of patient records is protected, eHealth instruments targeted at reducing wrongly administered treatments and adverse events can help put patients back at the centre of care.

A digital revolution could support more integrated services, better safety, improved quality and access to care everywhere, promote health solutions and strengthen relationships with health carers.

The eHealth terminology refers to the use of information and communication technologies for healthcare systems aimed at increasing their efficiency, improving quality of life and unlocking innovation in the sector.

Digital applications might cover an extensive range of services, from electronic health records, wearable solutions, ePrescriptions and even clinical decision-support systems. These are only a few examples of the solutions that a connected continuum of care can provide.

"Every year an estimated 4.1 million patients acquire a healthcare associated infection in the EU and at least 37,000 die as a result"

As a member of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, I have always supported a person-centred approach to healthcare services. I believe this will allow healthcare settings to have a real chance at improving patients’ quality of care, tailor healthcare to the needs of the individual and ensure that patients have the right to be involved in making decisions which directly impact their lives.

If policy-makers play their cards right, eHealth solutions can help make a real difference in patients’ experiences and ensure their safety.

I am very glad to see that the European Commission agrees with this vision. Reliable eHealth solutions not only have the potential to reduce rising demand for healthcare and the risk of adverse events, but can also improve the understanding of procedures. Patient safety must benefit from digital tools.

The digitalisation of the healthcare sector still has a long way to go. Although over 80 per cent of EU citizens agree that patients should be able to manage their own data and that sharing health data can be beneficial, however wearable health tools are not commonly used, prescriptions are often not digital and healthcare professionals continue to work with ageing IT systems that cannot exchange information effectively.

I hope that the European Commission’s latest communication on eHealth will give a boost to EU Member States to keep up with the digital revolution while putting patients and their safety at the core of healthcare strategies and services

Healthcare remains largely a national competence. However, this should not turn European policymakers away from working towards better coordination and support while addressing preventable harm. More needs to be done to keep patient safety high on the political agenda.

We owe it to our citizens - present and future - and we must protect what matters most to every person: their health.