Cross-border healthcare needs to be improved

ECA finds that patients still encounter issues while abroad

Photo: ECA Janusz Wojciechowski

About 200,000 patients a year, which means less than 0.05% of EU citizens, take advantage of the systems put in place under the 2011 Cross-border Healthcare Directive to receive healthcare treatments abroad. The newest report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) finds that European patients still face challenges in benefiting from the actions envisaged by this directive.

According to the auditors just a minority of potential patients are aware of their rights to seek medical care abroad. There are still problems and delays in exchanging patient health data electronically between Member States, the auditors revealed, and insisted that actions to facilitate access to healthcare for rare disease patients need to be improved.

Janusz Wojciechowski, Member of the European Court of Auditors and rapporteur on the file, underlined that EU citizens still don't benefit enough from the ambitious actions set out in the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive. He added that EU action includes the right to cross-border treatment, facilitating the exchange of patients' health data across borders, and initiatives for rare diseases. Better management is needed to deliver on these ambitions, Janusz Wojciechowski urged.

The auditors noted that the executive supported the EU countries in improving information on patients' rights to cross-border healthcare, but there were still some gaps.

The report states that the Commission underestimated the difficulties involved in deploying EU-wide eHealth infrastructure. The analysis also stressed that by the time of the audit, which was last November, Member States were only just about to start exchanging patient health data electronically, so the benefits for cross-border patients could not be demonstrated. It says as well that the Commission did not properly assess either the potential use or the cost-effectiveness of exchanging cross-border health data.

The ECA pointed out that the European Reference Networks for rare diseases are an ambitious innovation and are widely supported by doctors, healthcare providers and patients. The auditors found that despite the fact that a total of between 27 and 36 million people suffer from rare diseases in the EU, the networks face significant challenges to ensure they are financially sustainable and able to operate effectively across national healthcare systems.

The Commission should provide more support for national contact points to improve information on patients' rights to cross-border healthcare and better prepare for cross-border exchanges of health data, the auditors recommended.

They also emphasised that the executive should improve support for and management of European Reference Networks to facilitate rare disease patients' access to healthcare.

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