U.S., Europe tackle health challenges together, with technology

X-ray displaying on TV screen in hospital (© AP Images)
A nurse talks with a mother and child at a Pittsburgh hospital that keeps paperless medical records, allowing physicians to view a chest X-ray like this remotely. (© AP Images)

Imagine that a tourist newly arrived in a destination overseas is hit by a bus, knocked unconscious and rushed to a hospital. Doctors and nurses know the name in the passport but nothing about medical history, allergies to medications or other special conditions.

But what if that patient’s electronic health record could be easily retrieved before surgery? And if the medical codes and terminology collected in one country matched what doctors relied on in the next?

That’s been the goal of an ambitious eHealth project that the United States and the European Union undertook in 2010. The first stage finished last year, and work is expected to resume soon on a “road map” to bolster trans-Atlantic cooperation in eHealth among governments, international-standards agencies, health-care companies and entrepreneurs.

For now, the road-map teams have concentrated on clearing the way for these individual health summaries (with the patient controlling access). They have also worked on how best to recruit and train the personnel needed to make eHealth exchanges work efficiently.

But there is the promise of an even bigger payoff down the road from trans-Atlantic eHealth cooperation. Medical device manufacturers can reach new markets sooner if countries subscribe to the same standards and regulations.

Ultimately, as countries struggle to cope with aging populations and more people living with chronic diseases, the hope is that eHealth will deliver better care at lower costs. Already eHealth is helping pharmaceutical companies cast a wider net for patients for clinical trials of potentially life-saving medicines.

Ebola, Zika outbreaks underscore urgency

The U.S.-EU collaboration aims to make those health record systems work seamlessly — the technical term is interoperability — while protecting privacy. It has focused on which vital signs, lab tests and other information are the most important for international patient summaries.

Government experts say the Ebola and Zika outbreaks underscore the real-world urgency of international cooperation on health data.

Joris VanDam, a Novartis computer scientist and pharmaceutical researcher, said adoption of eHealth has been “super slow.” He sees the problem not as computer protocols, but regulatory roadblocks and reluctance of academic medical centers to share data. “They don’t want someone else doing research on the patients they treat.”

Nonetheless, eHealth is a high priority for the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Commerce, which promotes medical devices and pharmaceuticals as export priorities, also plays a lead part in the pursuit of common international standards. “Interoperability fuels creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation,” said international trade specialist Matthew Hein.