In the digital age, data has become the new oil of our economy, and as oil, data can contaminate if not used properly. This is why the use of the enormous wealth of information available must be first thoroughly analysed, and then, integrated into the design of our policies, treatment, and practices.
Big Data has been the buzzword over the past few years. Much of the action has so far taken place in area of research. However, the real power of the use of Big Data will come from its implementation in medical and care practice, in hospitals and health centres and by professionals in their daily work.
Health information comes from many sources, not least from portable devices – our smartphones - which are increasingly available and robust. But other data is generated without us really noticing: through Electronic Health Records, biobanks, imaging, social networks and smartphone applications.
Big Data offers big opportunities provided that the right conditions prevail. The opportunities are many: better diagnosis and treatment, better targeted prevention activities, better management of health systems. If we manage to harness the power of Big Data we will make a leap forward in patient safety, care and contribute to the sustainability of healthcare systems.
The Commission, DG SANTE, is working on patient health data exchange through the eHealth Network, providing new opportunities for EU-wide data
There are already many important initiatives to make better use of Big Data in the EU. The Commission plays a role in both creating a Big Data friendly environment and making use of the information available.
But the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care is the responsibility of the Member States. Nevertheless, at a time of scarce public resources and mounting pressure on health systems, the EU support to Member States will be of concrete added value.
The Commission, DG SANTE, is working on patient health data exchange through the eHealth Network, providing new opportunities for EU-wide data. We provide financial support for the deployment of cross-border Patient Summary and ePrescriptions as well as the forthcoming European Reference Networks. The Networks will bring together highly specialised healthcare providers from different EU countries to work on rare and complex diseases. These 24 innovative networks will be launched in Vilnius, Lithuania, in March.
An important aspect for making successful use of Big Data is the collaboration from early stages between all stakeholders, patients, healthcare professionals, industry, academia, and healthcare payers.
These questions were discussed in a study on the use of Big Data in public health, telemedicine and healthcare, published at the end on 2016.
The experts contacted by the Commission made recommendations which aim to benefit European citizens and patients in terms of strengthening their health and improving the performance of Member States’ health systems.
Recommendations address ten relevant fields: awareness raising, education and training, data sources, open data and data sharing, applications and purposes, data analysis, governance of data access and use, standards, funding and financial resources, as well as legal aspects and privacy regulation.
They are suggestions for the European Union and its Member States.
Now policy makers need to decide how to follow up, and deliver concretely on the potential of Big Data. There are immense possibilities to better healthcare through the design of our policies.
By Tapani Piha
Head of Unit, Cross-Border Healthcare & eHealth
DG Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), European Commission