The European Commission has launched two major e-health initiatives aimed at achieving interoperable e-health systems across Europe beginning with cross-border electronic health records, able to support citizens who require medical treatment while travelling or living abroad.

The announcements focus on extremely ambitious plans for a large scale pilot project – called SOS – involving 12 member states and is intended to pave the way to pan-European, multi-lingual emergency patient records that will eventually link with national pharmacy systems.

The announcements come on the day the European Commission unveiled new proposals that would allow patients to receive free medical treatments in any EU country under certain circumstances.

Based on the proposals, a patient on a waiting list in one country could get treatment in another EU state and have the cost refunded by their national health scheme.

The first e-health proposal covers detailed recommendations for developing interoperable cross-border electronic health records (EHRs).

The second linked proposal covers the launch of the Smart Open Services (SOS) Project, a large scale pilot intended to support the development of pan-European electronic patient records. SOS will focus on enabling the cross-border provision of ICT-based services that are already operational at national, regional or local level.

The two new e-health initiatives were announced by the European Commission’s directorate for Information Society and Media. Both are intended to provide EU countries with basic principles and guidelines for ensuring that doctors can gain access to vital information on patients that they are trying to treat, wherever the information is located in Europe.

According to the Commission “While several Member States have already developed electronic health records, many such (national) systems cannot communicate with each other.”

The Recommendation on cross-border interoperability of (EHR) systems is the first EC document to set out the steps EU countries should take to establish compatible EHR system. The key objective is to allow patient choice to access his/her important information stored in electronic health record systems anywhere at any time.

The SOS project is then intended to “validate and update” the interoperability recommendation based on the lessons learned.

The SOS project, co-funded by the European Commission at a cost of €11m, is supported by 12 EU states and industry partners, to demonstrate the benefits of such interoperability. The aim of the project is to enable health professionals to access data such as current medications of patients from other EU countries.

"Travelling around the European Union is taken for granted, until something goes wrong," said Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media. "This is why the EU’s initiatives on e-health intend to remove linguistic administrative and technical barriers, by making it easier for people to receive treatment even when they are away from their home country. I expect our recommendation and the SOS project to make an important contribution to saving patients’ lives in emergencies.”

The SOS project will receive over €22 million in funding in the next 3 years, €11 million of which is covered by the European Commission’s Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP). The project is a first step in addressing problems faced by doctors with patients who seek health treatment when abroad.

Problems to be addressed include re-filling essential medicines for patients, communicating medical situations to foreign-language doctors, diagnosing illness and prescribing proper medication with little knowledge of patient history.

According to the European Commission the SOS large-scale project will strive to ensure compatibility of electronic medical information regardless of language or sophistication of technology, without having to establish a common system throughout Europe.

The objective will be to allow health professionals to electronically access the data of a patient from another country, in their own language, using different technologies and systems. It is hoped that this will make it possible for pharmacies to electronically process prescriptions from other countries.

According to the European Commission the electronic records will be purely voluntary, and created only at the citizen’s request, respecting his/her right to privacy. The information contained in these health records has yet to be agreed upon, but it will include a summary of essential information such as blood group and known allergies.

The SOS project builds on national initiatives with the direct participation of Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.