Digitization of Healthcare Plays a Role in Beating Cancer

The EU considers digitization as a vital ally in this battle

The Economist’s recent World Cancer Series: Europe 2021 event highlighted the urgency of combating rising cancer cases on the continent. Tackling cancer is complex, requiring the insight of experts from several disciplines; the event offered an opportunity for senior policymakers, clinicians, patient advocates, industry representatives and academics to come together to forward the conversation on improving cancer care using the framework of the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan. The digitization of healthcare is important to the EU’s initiatives and featured heavily in discussions during the conference.

Europe’s Plan to Beat Cancer

The numbers speak for themselves: in 2020, 2.7 million people in the EU were diagnosed with cancer and 1.3 million died of the illness. One quarter of global cases are in Europe, where 10 % of the population suffers from cancer and there are an estimated 12 million survivors. Without further action taken, according to the European Commission, new cancer cases are expected to grow to more than 4.3 million by 2035 — becoming the leading cause of death in the EU.

Given this outlook — and the fact that about 40% of cancer cases are preventable — the European Commission has resolved to advance effective prevention, early detection strategies and research, enhance therapies and improve access to care. To this effect the Commission set up, among other things, the Beating Cancer Plan in early 2021. It comes with €4 billion in funding and consists of a bundle of 10 initiatives, including the European Cancer Imaging Initiative, which supports the development of new computer-aided tools to improve personalized medicine and innovative solutions. There is also the Knowledge Centre on Cancer for the coordination of scientific and technical cancer-related programmes at the EU level, and the EU network of National Comprehensive Cancer Centres. The latter was launched on 13 December and aims to ensure that 90% of eligible patients have access to care at a centre by 2030.

The exchange of data on a regional, national and international level to streamline research efforts and speed up the development of new treatments plays a central role in these initiatives. So too will the rising adoption of telemedicine and other forms of digital health services aid the EU’s plan to contain the growing number of new cancer cases.

Collaboration and Health Data

The EU’s plan for improving cancer care and driving down new cases focuses on three propositions:

  • The sharing of data to help providers care well for their patients.
  • The use of data to inform research and discoveries, enabling better identification of illnesses and their appropriate treatments.
  • Empowering citizens and patients to become agents of their own care through the use of technology, resulting in better health on an individual and population level.

Roger Taylor, advisor at Accenture and former chair of its Responsible AI Programme, endorses this position. He sees healthcare largely as an act of information processing: “Diagnosing patients is collecting a lot of information, comparing it to similar people and working out the correct diagnosis and treatment plan. It’s a data-driven exercise.”

For patients, the digitization of healthcare allows them to become more engaged and get a better picture of their overall journey, rather than only experiencing isolated episodes of treatment. This will make patients more involved in their own health.

Trust — The Ground Rule for Data-Driven Healthcare Delivery

The discussions at the Economist event made clear that trust in data and in digital technology is crucial for data-driven care to flourish. “One third of Europeans are not willing to share their personal data for public purposes, although patients usually agree to share their data,” pointed out Rosa Castro, manager of the European Alliance for Responsible R&D at the European Public Health Alliance. Overcoming low levels of trust will require broad investment in digital literacy, training and education, as well as more comprehensive Internet access throughout Europe.

But telling citizens and patients to trust in data is not as powerful letting them experience a better level of care first-hand. Paul Landau, chief executive and founder of Careology Health in the UK, said that at the onset of a pilot with their company’s app, 56% of sampled cancer patients opted to use it as part of their treatment. At the end of the pilot, 65% patients were using it. “The actual usage was higher than the appetite at the beginning,” reflected Mr Landau — as using the app turned out to be beneficial.

Recommendations for Manufacturers

A data-driven approach to healthcare facilitates closer collaboration in the healthcare sector. Therefore, manufacturers will increasingly be asked to deploy common standards for interoperability; this will also accelerate the platform approach to healthcare delivery including built-in cybersecurity and data privacy features. Companies will need to demonstrate the benefits of this approach and support its implementation through assistance in training and changes in management skills.

As patients experience the benefits of telehealth and other forms of digital healthcare, including the EU’s CovPass­App to certify the status of Covid-19 vaccinations, they’ll become more open to digital health applications and services in general.

Having the conversation on how to improve cancer care in Europe is a significant step in the right direction, but it needs to be taken further: the exchange of data and best practices should be global, especially when considering that the personalization of cancer treatment is gaining traction. Cancer will increasingly be treated as a disease with multiple subgroups where it’s paramount to collect data on each of these groups — this will require an Earth-sized catchment area.