HIMSS22 Europe: ‘Digitalisation must address health inequalities – not cause them’

HIMSS22 Europe: ‘Digitalisation must address health inequalities – not cause them’

There was a sense of hope, combined with an awareness of the challenges ahead, as global health experts convened to discuss the topic of ‘Humanity’s Moment for Reimagining Health and Care’ in the keynote session at HIMSS22 European Conference today in Helsinki (15 June).

The speakers were: Adam Niedzielski, Minister of Health, Poland; Elad Benjamin, business leader, clinical data services, Philips, Israel; Maria Hassel, senior advisor and international coordinator, Swedish eHealth Agency; Laura Létourneau, co-head of digital health ministerial delegation, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health; Aki Lindén, Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services, Finland; Simon Bolton, chief executive, NHS Digital, UK; Isabelle Kumar, former Euronews anchor, disability rights campaigner, president of Autisme, Ambition, Avenir, France; Dr Ilona Lundström, director general, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Finland; Hal Wolf, president and chief executive officer (CEO), HIMSS, US; Marco Foracchia, chief information officer (CIO) Azienda USL di Reggio Emilia, Italy

“Fundamentally there is now an opportunity for Europe in particular to accelerate digital transformation,” said HIMSS president and CEO, Hal Wolf, opening the session. “There is a spirit of innovation, creativity and the opportunity to re-imagine what we do, fundamentally born out of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Reimagining health and care

Dr Ilona Lundström, director general, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, said it was “time for collaboration” as she welcomed delegates to the conference on behalf of the Finnish government.

“The pace of transformation has been very fast over the past few years,” said Lundström. “Large numbers of disruptive innovations and technologies have speeded up change and spurred us to learn new skills.”

She added that health systems are undergoing large reforms with next generation EU funding and national healthcare systems are “taking giant leaps on the digital health journey which are very much welcomed and very much needed.”

The importance of collaboration

However, Aki Lindén, minister of Family Affairs and Social Services, Finland acknowledged there was still “a long way to go for a truly global digital revolution in healthcare”.

He pointed to the war in Ukraine, the food and energy crisis, climate change and ageing populations, as just some of the challenges healthcare systems in Europe are facing.

Lindén outlined some of the successful digital health initiatives in Finland, including Findata – a ‘one stop shop for data’ and the Fingenius ecosystem for biomedical research and development, which was launched yesterday (14 June).

Digital inclusion

“Digitalisation must support everyone’s health and wellbeing. It must address health inequities- not cause them,” said Lindén.

This point was taken up by Simon Bolton, chief executive, NHS Digital, who emphasised the importance of shining a light on health inequalities.

“One thing I’m proud of in my organisation is that we’ve  spent a lot of time doing data analytics to highlight where we’ve got health inequalities,” said Bolton. “For example, in the UK if I happened to be black, rather than white, I was five times more likely to die of COVID.”

There is often inherent bias in health data which can affect the accuracy of algorithms, said Elad Benjamin, business leader, clinical data services, Philips, Israel.

“The quality of the outcome and the decision support we provide is as good as the quality of data that comes in,” explained Benjamin. “The onus is to be very transparent on what data was used and what the accuracy is and to make a very concerted effort to gather a wide variety of data from different groups in order to try and reduce bias as much as possible.”

To move towards resolving the issue of bias, it is important to have diversity in technical teams, according to Bolton.

“One of the things we need to get right in our industry is diversity of staff,” argued Bolton. “If we’re going to get the algorithms right, we have to represent the society that we serve and today we don’t.”

Gaining public trust

Another hot topic for the panellists was the issue of gaining public trust in data sharing.

 “A big part of digital maturity is how we use data for provision of care, but also the insight it can give to improve health incomes and we can’t use that data unless we take the public with us,” said Bolton.

He was involved in the launch of England’s controversial GP data for planning and research scheme, which was postponed indefinitely after millions opted-out due to privacy fears.

“We did some research and 90% of people said if they knew their data was going to save lives, they would be willing to share it,” said Bolton. “We need to find ways to take the public with us and explain the real value, the insight and the difference it can make to people’s lives to use their data to improve health delivery.”

Involving citizens

France holds the current rotating presidency of the European Council and has been doubling down on its efforts in terms of health digitalisation. Speaking on a live link, Laura Létourneau, co-head of digital health ministerial delegation, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, outlined the four pillars of digital health and top priorities to be tackled at EU level.

“The most important priority is to involve citizens in digital health governance. It’s a key objective in terms of the credibility and validity of the European Health Data Space,” she said.

Refugee crisis

The session closed with a message from Polish Minister of Health Adam Niedzielski, about how the digitalisation has supported Poland in offering free healthcare to the four million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed its borders.   

He explained how simplified procedures have allowed Ukrainian citizens to receive personal ID numbers, which enables them to access online services such as e-prescriptions, e-referrals and the EU Digital COVID Certificate.

It was a fitting example of how digitalisation is being used to drive health equality and inclusion at this challenging time in history.