Members of the European Commission have said that they intend to set up an action plan to deal with the challenges of an ageing population and make telehealth more mainstream.

Speaking at the London Telehealth Symposium earlier this year, three EC civil servants told the audience that the eHealth industry, had been allocated funds by the EU and that they intended to spend it on research, development and deployment of systems that can be used across Europe.

Dr Rudolf Strohmeier, the head of cabinet for information society and media at the EC said: “eHealth can empower patients and improve healthcare. Even more importantly, by reducing the scope for medical errors, it can save lives. We need a partnership between health ministers, technology providers, patient groups and health organisations to release the full potential of eHealth in Europe.

Focusing specifically on telehealth, Dr Strohmeier said that eHealth technologies could help meet the challenges of an ageing population where the costs of long term health care are increasing rapidly.

He said an action plan by the EC is proposing to implement a better way of life for elderly persons that achieves cost savings and is interoperable with all EU IT systems.

His colleague, Dr Paul Timmers, head of the eInclusion unit at the EC added: “Ageing is a huge issue which we need to tackle. A 60% increase is expected in the numbers of older people by 2050. ICT can help people with independent living, active ageing at work and social participation. We estimate that by 2020, 37m people will want to live in a ‘smart home’ in the EU alone.”

Dr Timmers added that in order for telehealth to progress, there was a need for more awareness and evidence, and for a larger market for health and well-being ICT market.

“The Action Plan we are proposing will include ways of building awareness and consensus, putting enabling conditions in place, stimulating take-up and preparing the future. It is a large innovation challenge and we want to encourage further development in helping health authorities deal with the challenges facing us as the ageing population grows.”

Already in place is a research and development programme that is dealing specifically to long term, cost-effective innovative solutions. The EC wants to start piloting these systems as soon as possible.

The members also briefly spoke about eHealth initiatives linked to patient record, expressing a desire to implement a common system between the EU member states that would link patient records across the union.

Dr Gérard Comyn, head of the ICT for Health Unit at the EC said: “We would like to set out a roadmap for greater use of technologies, new services and systems, built around an objective of a "European eHealth Area". It would identify practical steps to get there through work on electronic health records, patient identifiers and health cards, and the faster rollout of high speed internet access to enable optimum interactions among health care professionals and with the general public.”

However, this could be a while off as it would require a minimum of €20m investment from each member states. The initiative called the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework has been included in the new research and development programme, entitled Framework 7.

Above all, Dr Comyn said: “It should be a case of citizen empowerment. This is something we want to encourage, the continuity of care that is preventative and personalised – centered around the patient.”

Dr Strohmeier said: “The European approach to eHealth should be about spending euros on patients not on paperwork. For example, electronic medical records can help doctors to diagnose illness and prescribe treatments more accurately, thus reducing medical errors. It also means cutting down paperwork to improve efficiency. Electronic patient referrals in Denmark are saving €1 million a year and could rise to €3.5 million a year, if all referrals were sent electronically.”

He added finding the right balance between patient concerns and the benefits that ICT could bring would help make treating patients more easy and effective for European health organisations.