European Commissioner for Health and Human Protection, David Byrne, has called for the creation of a common ‘European e-health area’ in which patients are able to freely move between member states to receive care.

With many member states due to start issuing the new E111 health insurance card in June, Byrne said the European health card would start to realise this vision. “When patients need health services abroad they will have a piece of Europe in their pockets."

Speaking just a fortnight after the European Commission issued three separate communications, each stressing the vital role e-health has to play in the modernisation of European healthcare systems, the Commissioner said: “It [e-health] must enter the mainstream of healthcare policy as a critical tool. For this to happen we must convince policy makers and the public of its value."

In his keynote address to the high level EU e-health conference in Cork earlier this month, Commissioner Byrne said: “The Commission is convinced that e-health has a vital role to play in benefiting public health and the health of Europeans."

He said that it was vital that Europe fully harnesses e-health technologies to promote the health of all Europeans, and equitable access to healthcare services. “The check list of applications and their potential is very impressive."

The Commissioner said that e-health tools and applications “will be vital to ensuring geography does not become a determinant in our health".

E-health technologies will also support the delivery of care to patients much closer to home. “E-health will also help the overwhelming majority of patients who will want treatment much closer to home."

Commissioner Byrne stressed the key role e-health had to play in enabling European citizens to take greater control over their own healthcare and make informed decisions. “E-health will play an important role in providing the information people need to make choices for themselves."

He added: “Imagine the benefits of connecting up groups of patients with similar diseases, the role of this technology in educating people in health is very promising."

One key development he highlighted was the Commission’s current work to develop and launch a European Public Health portal, designed to provide authoritative public health data to healthcare professionals and service planners.

Patient mobility across the European Union will only be possible with the widespread adoption of e-health technologies, said Byrne. “E-health will play a vital role in matching waiting lists to empty beds, and support the development of regional centres of excellence… Healthcare systems must be able to talk to one another."

However, the Commissioner made clear that the European Commission believed the time for discrete e-health projects was over, instead there is now a pressing need was to instead move e-health solutions into the mainstream of healthcare delivery. “We are convinced that e-health must move from a jumble of projects to playing a central role in the modernisation of healthcare… We need to move to practical realities on the ground."

Byrne said that the Commission’s communication on e-health sets out an action plan for the creation of a ‘European e-health area’. “Health policy makers need to understand the potential implications and technological options."

He added that the Commission had already invested over a billion Euros in e-health, and there was now a need to create an environment that encourages investment from industry and entrepreneurship, to make the technologies mainstream. “To build the European E-Health Area we need to move from exploration to action."

Summing up Bryne identified four key challenges ahead in creating the ‘European Health Area’: interoperability; electronic healthcare cards; equality and access for all; and matching industry supply and demand across Europe.

Adding his own final comment, Micheal Martin, Irish Minister for Health and Children, said: “We are on the cusp of a wave of e-health innovation. It is a rapidly maturing technology and soon we will be wondering how we got on without it."