Two faces of e-health in pandemic times

Alicja Mikołajewicz-Woźniak,
Ph.D., Assistant Professor,
Faculty of Law and Administration, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań,

WHO defines e-health as the use of information and telecommunication technologies for health. Such a vague approach allows this term to encompass a number of various solutions with a very different degree of technological advancement. The common denominator is only the goal – broadly understood health protection – combined with the application of specific technologies to achieve it. Consequently, the field lies at the intersection of medical informatics, public health and business. Its development is driven by the evolving needs of society on the one side and the willingness to achieve certain benefits (in particular financial gains) by entities introducing innovative solutions on the other. Along with the enhancement of digital technologies, e-health enters new paths, bringing about better prevention, optimized treatment or more effective surveillance of designated areas. Although the process is continuous, certain events become perceptible breakthroughs. One of them is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a collapse in the health care systems of many countries.

The immediate cause was the necessity to commit huge resources to fight the dangerous disease. However, the implementation of various solutions aimed at stopping the transmission of the coronavirus, radically limiting access to health care also for non-infected patients, turned out to be no less significant reason. The situation has revealed completely new needs (related to, inter alia, controlling the location and health condition of dispersed individuals), forced the reorganization of the diagnostic and treatment process (being partly a consequence of the need to maintain social distance) and exacerbated the problems with deficits of some resources (which concerned in particular shortage of medical personnel). The fight to keep health care systems functioning has become a priority and digital technologies as well as Artificial Intelligence analytics tools have been considered a key part of EU’s response to the pandemic. Currently implemented programs are aimed at detecting and preventing the spread of coronavirus, improving intensive care as well as protecting health care workers. Ensuring adequate financing of these projects from EU funds significantly increases the chances of their success.

Due to such commitment digital technologies noticeably improve the functioning of the health care system. Nevertheless, they carry also a number of risks as well as unfavorable phenomena. One of them is the already noticeable exclusion of particular social groups (including people who have a very limited experience in the use of digital tools or more advanced techniques of distance communication) from access to remote medical services. Furthermore, the negative consequences of insufficient skills in the use of technologically advanced solutions are accompanied by the problem of high costs of their implementation. Private health care sector (often constituting the last resort for those not finding sufficient help in the public health service) uses the need to implement new IT solutions as another justification for increasing the price of its services. This price increase, additionally fueled by several other factors such as increased demand or the need to meet more stringent sanitary requirements, reduces the availability of medical services for the poorer parts of society and exacerbates inequalities in this area. External financing is currently targeted at selected areas, primarily supporting the fight against the pandemic. This seems to obscure the legitimacy of looking for opportunities to improve the treatment process of common ailments, that significantly burden the functioning of the health service. And successes achieved in selected areas, though may solve some pressing issues, will not translate into an efficient functioning of the whole health care system. For example, limited access to scattered medical records of patients still hinders the provision of medical services, although the blockchain technology offers effective solutions to the problem. Its nuisance in times of pandemic, however, may become an impulse to introduce changes.

As it has been emphasized for a long time, e-health is not only a matter of implementing advanced technical solutions, but also a specific way of thinking combined the right attitude to implement required changes in particular areas of health care. The pandemic prepared the right ground to change the attitude of a previously unconvinced part of society towards the development of telemedicine or Mobile Health, and prompted the competent authorities to invest additional resources in areas like Health IT Systems or Big Data Systems used in digital health. This should be seen as an opportunity. Its proper use, however, will depend on the appropriate coping with the problems that emerge along the way.


Expert article 2948

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 3/2021

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.