Brussels, 24 Feb 2005
The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) introduced in June 2004 has greatly facilitated access to medical assistance for the millions of Europeans travelling to other EU countries on holiday or business. Yet with regulations governing health entitlements differing from country to country, there is still plenty of room for misunderstanding and bureaucracy.
The Netc@rds project, funded under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), aims to further facilitate the mobility of Europeans by integrating the existing national computer networks and organisation systems governing access to healthcare.
'Member States are increasingly adopting electronic health cards, thus streamlining their health care administration,' explains Marjan Susselj from the Health Institute of Slovenia, one of the 20 partners in the project. 'Netc@rds is working towards establishing technical interoperability between existing national smart cards, card readers and data processing systems. It will also establish legal and administrative interoperability of the procedures behind the cards,' he adds.
As Mr Susselj made clear in a presentation in Brussels on 21 February, even countries that have not yet switched to smart cards will benefit from the project. For example, they will be able to take advantage of automatic data-capture on the health entitlements and insurance details of visitors in need of medical care. Security will be improved thanks to the creation of a network of servers. And it will be possible to check online the validity of a card presented to a hospital or doctor.
The first pilot project took place during the Olympic Games in Greece in 2004. 14 hospitals participated in the scheme. The pilot was such a success that it was extended to the Paralympics, said Mr Susselj. The users found it simplified and sped up the process. There were no training problems as the system was found to be simple and usable.
'Everyone benefited from the new system, health care providers, health insurance providers and patients,' said Mr Susselj. 'It meant less administration, improved reliability and security of data for some and significantly simpler and faster procedures for others.'
The project is expected to reach full market validation and provide all the technical prerequisites for initial deployment by March 2006. It is proposed that the current eye-readable EHIC will gradually be upgraded to an electronic card starting in 2007-2008.
'The 2006 football World Cup in Germany is our target for full implementation,' said EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Reding. 'With all those different nationalities brought together in one place, we need to be able to facilitate healthcare if necessary.'
'We have to remember, however, that we are not talking about a one-person-one-card system,' Ms Reding added. 'There are at present in the EU many different systems with many different cards. We are talking about interoperability of different systems and not a single one because the cultural diversity in healthcare in the EU is very high.'
Indeed, the project found that the different computer systems required relatively minor harmonisation to become technically interoperable, thanks to the development of considerable standardisation in Europe over the past decade or so. However, considerably more effort will be required to align the administrative, organisational and legal aspects of the different national health systems.