Luise Ritter argues that the COVID-19 pandemic provides an impetus for expanding European digital health cooperation and more specifically the successful implementation of an EU-wide data exchange mechanism, the realisation of which benefits from high public acceptance, the demand for a unified strategy towards health crisis prevention, and a strong leadership role of the German Council Presidency.
It is without a doubt that the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be primarily concerned with the mitigation of the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis. According to Linn Selle, President of the European Movement Germany, ‘the presidency’s agenda will be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its grave consequences for social cohesion, the economy and the idea of a borderless Europe’. However, the recently revised presidency agenda also offers a unique opportunity to create an all-encompassing digital European health care system that works effectively across borders. This is because the COVID-19 crisis has created up conditions that facilitate the implementation of EU-wide digital health measures, reaching beyond the scope of existing national collaboration.
On 1 July, Germany took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from Croatia, thereby setting the European political agenda for the next six months. Its amended presidency programme reflects the recurring request, made by previous presidencies and the European Commission, that national health care systems be better digitalised and more connected. The overall promise is to create responsive public services and reliable channels for information exchange between medical professionals within and across the member states.
Although the general European public health status, as it is determined on the basis of average life expectancy, is among the highest globally, the European Companion Report 2019 indicates that ‘business as usual is not enough’. The report highlights a growing geographical inequality among regions regarding access to health infrastructure. The motivation to develop a digitalised and better-interconnected health care infrastructure also corresponds with greater demand for health care services, resulting from demographic changes and an ever-ageing population.
However, due to COVID-19, politicians are now more than ever confronted with the problem of a slow digital transformation process in the European health care sector. At the moment of crisis, the lack of digital infrastructure and cross-national strategies becomes even more visible, because the member states rely on these structures for effective crisis management. Pointing out to a more functionalist argument here, member states are becoming gradually aware that the pandemic requires a unified strategy. As COVID-19 knows no borders, a centralised agreement to coordinate and navigate the way back to normality seems to be a reasonable and inevitable approach.
Resulting from the need for effective digital crisis management in the health care sector, a new momentum for action has opened up. The current situation creates the necessary political incentive for the (re)formulation of common European digital health care policies. In line with this future outlook, this article suggests that the pandemic is not just another burden adding up to existing challenges like the current European budget negotiations. Instead, it is the COVID-19 crisis itself that offers an opportunity for supranational cooperation in health care, as it establishes favourable conditions that allow the EU to overcome existing barriers to a comprehensive digital data exchange mechanisms.
The idea about an EU-wide coronavirus contact tracing application, that follows the example set by Japan and Germany earlier this year, is just one example of what is achievable. In accordance, the German presidency will focus more intensively on the implementation of a European Health Data Space to facilitate the exchange of health data across borders. The proposal to establish such a data space builds on the existing cooperation of smaller member states that have already been sharing patient summaries and e-prescriptions.
The COVID-19 crisis may foster public support for such a data exchange mechanism, as citizens are encouraged to turn to digital health treatment in times of obedience to social distancing measures. As a result, patients can better experience the benefits of digital tools and platforms, for example through participation in telemedicine. Prior to the pandemic, the primary roadblocks to an EU-wide data exchange mechanism were privacy law concerns and a low level of public trust towards digital health care management devices. Being aware of the acceptance issues in several European member states, the European Health Care Data Space has been designed with a privacy-centric focus, granting only government organisations and selected research units access to the data. The benefits of this procedure can be better understood when contrasted with commercial approaches applied by the United States, where the outsourcing of data management and aggregation tasks to private data agencies have been common practices.
Due to COVID-19, the previously held data protection debate about the processing of citizen’s health data reached another dimension, expounding the problem of weighing fundamental rights. In accordance, privacy concerns become more difficult to sustain during this health crisis as digital mechanisms offer conciderable support to protect another valuable right – the right to physical integrity – as it is currently enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. As a result, these trends will likely open up a new and more differentiated debate about the appropriate use of personal data for strategic policymaking purposes. The COVID-19 crisis will also create greater political capacity for the German Presidency to take an active role regarding the promotion of a European data exchange mechanism. In sum, the COVID-19 crisis establishes favourable conditions to design supranational coordinated measures that will advance integration in the digital health care sector.