Ljubljana, 7 October 2021 – The covid-19 epidemic has exposed the issue of non-systematic approaches to digitalization in healthcare systems around the world, and Slovenia is no exception. If we want a high quality, responsive and sustainable healthcare system, one of the key solutions is clear: systematic digitalization with unified logging quality processing of data. This was the topic of debate for eminent foreign and Slovenian experts at the Value of Innovation Strategic Conference, organized for the tenth year running by the Forum of international research and development pharmaceutical companies (Forum).

The fact that health technology is developing ever faster and is being increasingly influenced by artificial intelligence was emphasized by Michael Strübin, director of digital health with Medtech Europe. The devices we wear on our bodies today to monitor movement and detect falls, measure physical activity, heart activity and even forecast its failure are proof of this rapid development. Mr. Strübin noted that artificial intelligence and medical technologies could save 40 thousand lives per year, making up for 200 billion Euros or worth of savings each year which corresponds to 12 percent of all health expenditures in the EU. “Artificial intelligence saves us 1.8 billion hours per year. This equates to five hundred thousand additionally employed healthcare professionals. We are not talking about replacing medical technologies but rather making them available for interacting with patients in areas where a human is better than a machine,” added Strübin.

Of course there are certain obstacles, particularly legal, regulatory and financial, but with good organization any healthcare system can become more accessible and personalized, noted leading health data expert from the Finnish innovation foundation Sitra, dr. Minna Hendolin. In spite of its small size, Finland is at the top of the European countries in terms of digitalization of healthcare services. In 2014, Finland adopted a comprehensive healthcare strategy that has so far survived three different governments. The aim of the strategy was to transform Finland into an internationally recognized powerhouse in the field of research, innovation and development, as well as investments into the health sector. The strategy emphasized the importance of using data for secondary purposes of research, development, innovation and policy development, but the success story could not start without a profound renovation of legislation, which proved to be the difficult part. Dr. Hendolin described the national service KANTA that was established to become the backbone of the data and healthcare ecosystem: “It is a repository of patient data, social and health data, data on prescriptions and a type of data bank. Stored data is accessible to healthcare professionals that use the service to store health records and prescriptions, but citizens can access the data as well.   KANTA also provides a service platform that is a very important part of Finland’s healthcare infrastructure,” emphasized Minna Hendolin.

The opinion that Slovenia is investing much too little in the digitalization of healthcare and building a common database was echoed by all Slovenian speakers at the conference. Bogdan Tušar, Director General of the Healthcare System Development Directorate at the Ministry of Health, reported that only a single percent of all funds earmarked for healthcare is allocated to digitalization. The percentage abroad is four times as high. But we are already carrying out measures and taking first steps towards more innovative healthcare. The Ministry has formed a new directorate to focus on development issues ranging from legislation, health protection, long term care and digitalization. Metka Zaletel, head of the Health Data Center at the National Institute of Public Health and Anka Bolka, head of the Directorate for Development and Analysis at the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia, both reported that Slovenia is already collecting data and classifying it into useful databases.

One of the most challenging issues in Slovenian healthcare, as emphasized by Gregor Cuzak, co-creator and co-organizer of HealthDay.si, is also the fact that we invest into healthcare personnel for ten years or more, only to have professionals leave the country. Personnel issues could partly also be addressed by using artificial intelligence. The Conference saw a presentation of Frida – a commercial model of a humanoid robot. Dr. Izidor Mlakar from the Faculty of Electrotecnics, Computer Science and Informatics of the University of Maribor and University Medical Centre Maribor reported that the robot follows the vision of an open and comprehensive platform that could integrate various aspects of artificial intelligence into clinical care. Frida could be used to assist healthcare staff in various tasks, particularly in nursing care.

The healthcare sector in Europe has a turnover of 140 billion Euros and employs 760,000 people. Most of them, as many as 95 percent, work in small and mid-sized companies linked with the healthcare sector. Nathalie Moll, Director General of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) sees digitalization as the backbone of modern healthcare. She believes that digital health solutions and data will steer the development of life sciences and healthcare in the future.

“The epidemic has shown us how important it is to study diseases in a wider area, not only in individual countries. Countries must share their health data, establish a so-called federative architecture and begin analyzing mass data,” noted Dipak Kalra, President of the European Institute for Innovation through Health Data. It is health data that promotes innovation in healthcare. We must be aware of inequalities in the field of healthcare in different countries, but if we want to establish equitable access to health services, we must first establish appropriate data foundations, noted Dr. Kalra and emphasized the importance of data, that is essential for improving the quality of care and even finding out which areas require improvements.

The Conference also saw presentations of breakthrough therapies and technologies that will fundamentally change the way patients are treated. Prof. dr. Roman Jerala presented the importance and mission of the National Institute of Chemistry in the expansion of knowledge and linking with various stakeholders to transfer innovations into practice, including the development of new antiviral therapies. Prof. dr. Borut Štrukelj presented the future of RNA technology and the potential for developing new medicines using the technology.

Experts in the fields of healthcare and pharmacy agreed that digitalization of healthcare and a common European health database should be at the forefront of Europe’s efforts. If we want to have a high quality and sustainable healthcare system, a systematic digitalization is essential because a better integrated healthcare, remote or in person, brings long term savings and contributes decisively to greater resilience of healthcare systems.