Health system innovation protects public and economy from future health threats

Over the past decades in Europe, we have become increasingly complacent about our health systems, which have faced financial cuts and the pressures of a growing and ageing population. COVID-19 is now pushing these health systems to the limit.

We donโ€™t yet know what the long-term impact of the virus will be, but the widespread business closures and significant impact on employment have made it clear that health and the economy go hand in hand. 

Our global society โ€“ connected by technology, trade and travel like never before โ€“ means that COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last major disease outbreak we face. The only way to protect our people and economies against future public health threats is to improve the long-term sustainability of our health systems. That means giving health systems the resources they need to deliver care and โ€“ with data showing that up to 20% of health spending is wasted1 โ€“ making sure these resources are used effectively. 

COVID-19 will limit the uptake of some innovation in the short-term, such as the widespread shutdown of clinical research for many other diseases.2 Yet there are also ways in which the pandemic provides a chance to accelerate progress to future proof health systems, such as the use of data and technology to modernise, deliver better care, and cut down on waste. 


Evidence-based decision-making

Data can help us live healthier and longer lives; be it wearables tracking our exercise and lifestyle or genetic mapping to find targets for new medicines. Yet health systems have huge volumes of data that arenโ€™t brought together in a useful fashion. According to the World Economic Forum, 97% of all data produced by hospitals each year goes unused.3 

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of using data to drive evidence-based decision-making. Taiwanโ€™s swift response to COVID-19 included the use of national databases to identify people most at risk of infection, conducting extensive contact tracing, and the shutdown of disinformation on social media.4 As of 28 April, the island of over 23 million people had 429 confirmed cases and just 6 fatalities.5,6

From a European policy perspective, the learnings from COVID-19 highlight the importance of developing a shared European Health Data Space7 to support evidence-based decision-making in prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care. The public already show a willingness to share data in response to the pandemic, with a study showing that 71.9% of Germans would share health data, movement profiles or social contact points with public institutions.8 


Increased use of technology and remote healthcare

Technology, like data, can increase the accessibility of healthcare, improve patient outcomes and reduce costs.  Studies show that use of telehealth could reduce hospital admissions by as much as 20% for people living with long-term conditions such as diabetes and pulmonary heart disease in the UK.9 

After years of resistance to virtual healthcare, COVID-19 has broken down the barriers. Governments and insurance companies have raced to lift restrictions on its use, and the European Parliament has called on Member States to increase the capacity of telehealth services in the fight against COVID-19.10 The past few weeks have seen a ten-fold increase in virtual patient consultations in the US, while in China physicians use technology to consult with upwards of a hundred patients a day.11

Health systems face pressure to do more with less and will continue to do so in the future. We must promote innovation, and ensure data and evidence are the basis of decision-making, to future proof our health systems and ensure their long-term sustainability. 

COVID-19 has shown the world that you cannot have a successful economy without good healthcare. This is a wake-up call we all need to heed โ€“ it cannot be business as usual when this is over.



Join me on Friday 8 May for a discussion on health system sustainability and pandemic preparedness with healthcare experts from Europe, Asia and the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine.


When: Friday 8 May 

Time: 10:00-12:00 CET

Click here to register: Building Resilient Health Systems: Experts discuss the impact of COVID-19


Mary Harney is a member of the FutureProofing Healthcare Expert Panel.  Previously she was Former Tรกnaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Former Minister for Health for Ireland. She is currently Chancellor for the University of Limerick.



1 OECD. Health at a Glance: Europe 2018, State of Health in the EU Cycle. Available at Accessed April 2020

2 Nature. Coronovirus shuts down trials of drugs for multiple other diseases. Available at Accessed April 2020

3 World Economic Forum. Four ways data is improving healthcare. Available at Accessed April 2020

4 Wang CJ, Ng CY, Brook RH. Response to COVID-19 in Taiwan: Big Data Analytics, New Technology, and Proactive Testing. JAMA. 2020;323(14):1341โ€“1342

5 CIA World Factbook, Taiwan. Accessed April 2020

6 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Situation update worldwide, as of 28 April 2020. Available at Accessed April 2020

7 European Commission. A European Strategy for Data. Available at Accessed April 2020

8 Deutsches ร„rzteblatt. Deutsche wรผrden private Daten zur Bekรคmpfung des Coronavirus freigeben. Available at Accessed April 2020

9 OECD. Tackling Wasteful Spending on Health. Available at Accessed April 2020

10 European Parliament. Motion for a resolution on EU coordinated action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. Available at Accessed April 2020

11 The Lancet. Virtual health care in the era of COVID-19. Available at Accessed April 2020

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