Ilias Iakovidis, deputy head of the e-health unit at the European Commission
Ilias Iakovidis, deputy head of the e-health unit at the European Commission

The deputy head of European Commission’s ICT for Health unit today called for everyone involved in developing e-health to seize advantage of the current window of opportunity to move from pilots to large-scale implementation.

In an exclusive interview with E-Health Europe at the e-Health 2008 conference in Portoroz, Slovenia, Ilias Iakovidis, the Commission’s lead on e-health, said: “We need to go beyond pilots and start thinking in terms of large scale deployments.”

He said that there was a firm evidence base for the benefits to patients of e-health initiatives and no excuse not to begin moving into the mainstream. “It’s a crime to not do this.”

Describing the current situation, he said that at past European Commission e-health conferences speakers would talk about what will be, now they are taking about what is happening and being done.

Iakovidis said the vast majority of current health ICT spend was not on clinical applications or e-health. Infrastructure, ranging from hospital telecoms, desktop and back office systems, is estimated to account for over 80% of spend, with only 20% on clinical systems. Instead, the Commission’s focus is on e-health applications, such as telecare and personal healthcare systems.

“The central theme of e-health is to give people tools that will enable them to better care for themselves,” said Iakovidis.

To help galvanise efforts in this field the Commission is moving forward its largest e-health project yet, investing €11m in the 12-nation Smart Open Source (SOS) initiative, to develop the services needed to support cross-border patient summary and e-prescribing. A further €11m will be committed by industry.

The SOS project will concentrate on the development of common IT services components required to support cross-border interoperability, including: authentication, patient ID, security, and privacy.

Iakovidis said that all European actors in e-health were in the middle of a unique window of opportunity on e-health, and needed to take advantage of the political support that currently exists. “Now, and maybe for the next two years, is the window of opportunity, and it will not last.”

Iakovidis said the e-health industry stood poised to take-off and enjoy rapid growth. “We’re at the bottom of the S-curve”. He said at the moment everyone involved in European e-health sees the potential for growth and politicians understandably “want to be associated with it”.

Despite the challenges, he stressed, Europe has a tremendous opportunity to build on its position as “the leading continent in the world on e-health”, delivering huge potential benefits to patients and the European economy.

But he warned the current attention and opportunity would not last: “You’ll see politicians will begin to take their eyes of this and look at other areas like green technologies. Now is the time to act.”

However, Iakovidis said that large scale deployments remained a huge challenge and acknowledged that to date the budgets for e-health were small, with few in the industry were yet making money out of it. “Eldorado is not there yet.”

“We’ve not seen anyone getting rich out of e-health. I don’t think anyone yet understands the full complexity of large-scale deployments. Its much more complex than they imagine.”

He added: “one thing I’m trying to preach is that it’s extremely hard and will take time.”