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24th May 2016

Electronic records can help to beat cancer

Europe must make it easier to connect the dots between cancer patients’ health records.

Information is power. But unless health information is recorded and shared, it is impossible for doctors to make informed decisions about patient care.

There is a lot at stake. Two-time cancer survivor Barry Bloom was dealing with a second bout of colon cancer five years ago when he learned that the disease had spread to his lung.

His relapse could have been avoided. Pathology results from a colon operation had shown traces of cancer in his lymph nodes but the surgeon misread the report. Traces of cancer were found a year later when the results were re-run by a doctor in Houston.

“Had my oncologist possessed that information, he would have immediately placed me on a course of chemotherapy,” says Barry. “He didn’t, and suddenly I had become a stage IV cancer patient for the worst of reasons: medical error.”

His confidence in the health system was shot. Barry felt that he alone was carrying burden of saving himself from cancer.

My anxiety was at an untenable level, and as now the CEO of my own healthcare, I had learned an important lesson: the more doctors, clinics and hospitals involved without access to the same computer records, the greater chance for something to go wrong.

Barry, a seasoned sports writer based in the US, had the good fortune to access a care team at the Mayo Clinic – one of the best cancer centres in the world. There, he benefited from seamlessly connected healthcare, where the results of diagnostic tests are quickly made available to relevant doctors so that they can make swift and smart interventions.

Playing catch-up

Barry’s experience reflects the experience of millions of European patients. Even in EU Member States with a single national health service, a unified electronic patient record is still a pipe dream. In some cases, transferring records from primary care to hospitals – or even between surgeons, radiologists and oncologists in the same clinic – can be a challenge.

In countries with multiple providers or regional systems, the risk of fragmentation can be greater still. And the prospect of sharing health records between Member States – as envisaged by the EU Cross-border Healthcare Directive – is beset by challenges ranging from linguistic barriers to software interoperability issues.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Healthcare is way behind other sectors in embracing the power of ICT. Google securely stores masses of information about our preferences, along with millions of private emails and documents.

Banking, where security is paramount, has managed the shift to online banking and overcome most of the cross-border challenges faced by other sectors. The Single European Payment Area (SEPA) makes electronic fund transfers between EU Member States quick and easy. You can even do it using your smartphone.

In the telecoms sector, the EU has even reduced the cost of making calls, sending texts and downloading data via your mobile network when traveling in the 28-nation bloc.

And yet healthcare, where e-health can quite literally save lives, is years behind other industries.

There’s an app for that

Consumer technologies can help. The fast-growing field of mHealth – which harnesses the power of mobile technologies – can empower European citizens to manage their care and make it easier for doctors to securely share patient data in seconds.

That is why the European Cancer Patient Coalition is bringing together experts and policymakers in the European Parliament to discuss how mHealth apps can be used within cancer care pathways.

There are technical and legal issues to be overcome, notably in the field of data protection, but other consumer-focused sectors have found ways to unlock the power of technology. Why should healthcare by any different?

Red flag

Meanwhile, Barry Bloom remains cancer free. He escaped his earlier relapse which had resulted from doctors missing a major red flag because information was not recorded and shared.

But what about the stories not told? How many people have died because information fell between the cracks?

With computers on every doctors’ desk and smartphones in the pockets of so many patients, there is no excuse for leaving the potential of eHealth and mHealth untapped in 21st century Europe.