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Transforming European health systems in the wake of COVID-19

Even before COVID-19, Europe’s healthcare systems were facing numerous challenges. Many of them are well known, such as a need to reduce waste and for the more robust and efficient use of health data. Arguably the trend that received the most attention pre-COVID and poses the greatest overall structural challenge is Europe’s ageing population. An ageing population (around 20 % of the EU’s population is aged over 65) means a higher prevalence of major chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke and cancer. It means an ever higher slice of the national budget needs to be allocated to healthcare. It means that innovative strategies to streamline and digitalise healthcare become more essential than ever. And, finally, Europe’s ageing population is likely to be one of the key reasons why it has been so badly walloped by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of overall mortality rates.

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is also sometimes a matter of opportunity” – Hippocrates, Ancient Greek physician

So, more than a year after Europe locked down for the first time to combat the novel coronavirus but with the imminent arrival of mass vaccination, many could argue that now is the time for a rethink on where to go from here in terms of transforming European health systems. Looking back at the last year, the pandemic has indeed accelerated some trends that had already begun but had been very much still in their infancy pre-2020. One of these is eHealth (or ‘telemedicine’), long touted as an important solution to mitigate the increased healthcare needs of the ageing population. For example, many Europeans would have experienced an online consultation with their family doctor for the very first time in 2020 due to the sheer necessity of maintaining strict social distancing protocols. Whilst probably an unnerving experience at first for many due to the novelty, this is likely to become more acceptable when, for example, only minor ailments need to be discussed that don’t necessarily require a physical examination. We’re also seeing the development of increasingly sophisticated wearable technology that can monitor health indicators such as heart rate and blood sugar levels as well as those indicators associated with mental health distress. Many of these devices are also being designed in order to transmit such readings directly to healthcare professionals, adding an exciting dimension to the digitalisation of health systems. And of course, to tie all of these innovations together, is an emphasis on the safe and appropriate use of health data to not only improve healthcare outcomes but also ensure the rights of the individual patient are observed and protected. The seven projects funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and showcased in this month’s special feature offer a tantalising glimpse of exciting innovations that could help define what European health systems will be offering patients and citizens over the next decade and beyond. Whilst it may take some time for these innovations to become more ingrained in our healthcare systems and for patients to experience them and their benefits first-hand, the scientists and researchers who are moving them forward have all done so with one ultimate end goal in mind: to ensure all citizens can live healthier, fuller lives as we move decisively into the Post-COVID Brave New World. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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