EU report: Digital tools show 'great potential' for disease prevention

Recent papers have indicated that the uptake of digital tools for healthcare varies across the EU, with the pace of transformation continuing to be seen as slow. New initiatives, however, point to signs of progress. Only at the beginning of November, Germany passed new legislation in what is perceived by many as a step forward to digitising healthcare in the country.  

According to a new report from the European Commission, digital products hold “great” promise for disease prevention in the EU. However, their uneven introduction risks deepening health inequalities – with those most in need potentially lacking access to the tools being introduced or the skills needed to use them.

“Employing digital solutions to strengthen health and well-being will require equal digital opportunities, widespread digital literacy, strong digital security and well-designed, effective tools, services and platforms,” the authors warn.

Despite being identified as a key trend, according to the report, only around 3% of total health spending across the EU is dedicated to prevention. In countries like Malta, Greece and Slovakia, that number is below 2%. Meanwhile, preventable mortality rates are more than double compared to the EU average in Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary. 

The analysis, carried out in collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, was published at the end of November.

Addressing the decline in vaccination uptake and confidence

In addition to digital transformation and prevention, the authors put emphasis on the need to tackle the decline in vaccine confidence. In January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said vaccine hesitancy was one of the major global health threats of 2019. 

Although many reasons can be attributed to the decline in vaccination uptake, experts in countries like the UK, which lost its measles-free status with the WHO back in August, have asked social media giants to tackle the misinformation being shared on their platforms.

Measles can be prevented through two doses of the MMR vaccine. But figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, released in May, showed that over 40,000 cases of measles were reported in the EU in the past three years.

In a survey for the 2018 State of Vaccine Confidence in the EU, cited in the analysis, only 70% of people in France, 68% in Latvia and 66% in Bulgaria said they believed vaccines were safe. Furthermore, just over 70% of people in Poland, Bulgaria and Latvia said they thought vaccines were effective.

“As the number of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases diminished greatly, the perception of risk also decreased and doubts have emerged about the need to vaccinate at all. It is imperative to understand the reasons for this drop in vaccine confidence, to target EU support effectively and with great urgency.

“Recent evidence suggests that there is scope to improve health literacy and counter disinformation, and that the health workforce can better employ its trusted role as information provider,” the authors caution. 

On the record

Commenting on the report, Vytenis Andriukaitis, former commissioner for health and food safety, said in a statement: “Various surveys and debates across Europe prove us that health ranks among the top priorities of European citizens. I am particularly glad that health promotion and disease prevention are finally getting the attention they need.

“I am therefore very proud to have initiated the State of Health in the EU cycle and delivered two cycles together with the OECD and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies for 28 EU Member States, plus Norway and Iceland. I can clearly see that this robust country-specific and cross-EU knowledge feeds into both national policymaking and EU level cooperation. I hope my successor will continue this exercise and that more Member States will follow up the voluntary-basis discussions on its findings and share best practices.”

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