Future priorities and opportunities for digital health

Funding of European digital initiatives is incredibly important. This webinar, held on 18 June 2021, was part of DigitalHealthEurope’s comprehensive and structured support services for the deployment and large-scale uptake of digital solutions for integrate care. It was organised by the Central European Initiative (CEI), with a particular focus on Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as a geopolitical area.

Key insights were offered into what is happening in the European Commission and the World Health Organization (WHO), shortly followed by examples of funding obtained by four Digital Innovation Hubs.

European funding priorities

Financially, there is much on offer in the European Union. The available programmes are all at different stages of planning, approval and development. Highlights include programmes such as Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, EU4Health and NextGenerationEU.

Birgit Morlion from the European Commission’s Communications Network, Content and Technology Directorate General (DG CNECT) gave an overview about the funding opportunities dedicated to digital health from the European Commission’s side. To start with, she presented the Horizon Europe programme. Over the programme’s 7-year period which offers a 95billion € investment, 14billion € will foster a healthier, greener and more digital Europe.

Partnerships are key. Ms Morlion emphasised that the novelties of Horizon Europe include the partnerships under its pillar II (which covers global challenges and European industrial competitiveness). Health-related partnerships are included in destination 4 on ‘insuring access to innovative, sustainable and high-quality healthcare’. Starting 2023, one of most relevant topics for digital health research, development, innovation and scale-up will be the one on the ‘transformation of health and care systems’. The first work programmes under pillar II were published on 16 June 2021 and the first calls will open on 22 June 2021.

Digital is one of the political priorities of the current European Commission. An entirely new funding programme will be devoted to this priority: the Digital Europe Programme (DEP) that focuses on strengthening the strategic autonomy of Europe and supporting companies, citizens, and public administrations throughout their digital transformation. The programme is mainly centred on upcoming and emerging technologies like high-performing computing, artificial intelligence, cyber security as well as the digital skills that accompany digital transformation.

In the health domain, the DEP offers opportunities around data spaces and the training of AI algorithms for clinical decision support, which can help with the collection and use of quality data. The DEP also includes the notion of testing and experimentation facilities (TEF) that focus on what infrastructure is needed to address certain technical and organisational challenges. DEP-related coordination and support actions offer the opportunity for the acceleration and deployment of digital health technologies. The programme has yet to obtain the approval of European decision-makers.

EU4Health is the successor of the Health Programme. It has a more ambitious form than its predecessor, and was launched during an early period of the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic. A budget of 5billion € will be spent over the upcoming 7 years. The budget will address cross-border health threats and aim to strengthen the resilience of health systems by improving resource efficiency. Under this strand of funding, applicants will find calls targeting digital and cross-border deployment of digital health services and products. The programme itself has been approved, but the first work programme is still under preparation.

The Next Generation EU includes loans and grants that can be dedicated to digitalisation. Upfront, it was decided that 20% of the extra COVID-related recovery resources should be invested in digital transformation. These calls are worthwhile exploring by the interested stakeholders.

Global priorities from WHO

Clayton Hamilton shared with the attendees information and knowledge about World Health Organization (WHO) digital health activities in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. His presentation focussed on two core insights. First, how funding instruments can be leveraged from the national and regional perspectives. Second, what the funding organisations, such as the European Commission and World Bank, are looking for from proposers seeking to access those funds.

Change is underway. Although the WHO has been working on digital health for a long time, in comparison to the past, the level of engagement, intensity and depth of work has increased as a result of the COVID pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis gave the WHO a lift in health decision-makers’ awareness about the possibilities of using digital technologies to empower health service delivery as well as individuals.

As a strategic move, the WHO has created a new digital health flagship. This is one of the four key priorities in the 53 WHO member states of the European region, called ‘Empowerment through Digital Health’. The idea of this flagship is to bring together all the (currently siloed) perspectives and partners that are committed to making digital health a success. The intention is to multiply the partners’ efforts rather than waste them.

The WHO’s perspectives are different from many other organisations. What the WHO really wants to do is look at aspects of digital health that address improving access and quality of care while bringing to the fore the issues of equity, gender and human rights. There is also a relatively new global strategy on digital health that the WHO approved at its World Health Assembly in late 2020. The idea of this initiative is to translate its high-level strategic objectives into much more tangible actions in the countries in the Western Balkan region and in the Eastern Partnership countries.

This global strategy pursues three major strategic objectives:

  • safe, inclusive and people-centred digital health services for universal health coverage;
  • leveraging data and digital technologies to increase resilience;
  • health and well-being.

The WHO is working as a change-maker. Although the WHO will not fund concrete projects, it will facilitate the better understanding, knowledge and guidance about digital health funding through networks like the Western Balkans digital health network. The idea is to bring together countries in new configurations, accelerate digital health adoption, identify and apply standards, exchange knowledge, and leverage all these opportunities. The WHO will fund dialogues with funding partners. The WHO can help applicants to programmes to understand what opportunities exist.

DIHs in Central-Eastern Europe

What is happening in Eastern Europe is already interesting. Opportunities exist to partner with teams from the east of the European Union. Therefore, last but not least, four CEI member clusters, Digital Innovation Hubs presented their profiles with the aim of creating partnerships and launching collaboration with interested participants around their areas of matching interest. Examples included artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, entrepreneurialism, research, education, and the use of useful toolkits:

  • Cluj IT Cluster (Romania) which focuses on AI and smart robotics to support more sustainable companies, organisations, communities, cities.
  • Technology Parc Ljubljana (Slovenia) holds a DIH HealthDay which supports small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups. Each year, five healthcare companies get support with hands-on entrepreneurship workshops, action plans for business development, promotional platforms and international networking.
  • Pannon Business Network (Hungary) has three flagship areas: research infrastructure, education and physical infrastructure.
  • Transilvania IT cluster runs an e-health working group whose purpose is to identify the current needs of the community it represents. Its mission is to find the appropriate tools and resources to implement relevant projects that can be replicated in other regions or sectors.