Enabling citizens to easily access eHealth services online is a key goal for most European countries. Despite this, the implementation of such large-scale projects remains a distant dream for most of the continent’s nations. Indeed, the European Commission’s new eGovernment Benchmark data reveals that while access to most online public services has generally improved, a huge digital divide persists between the nations surveyed when it comes to the provision of digital health services.
Covering EU-27 member states, European Free Trade Association countries including Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, and EU candidate nations such as Albania, North Macedonia and Turkey, the report analyzed more than 14,000 sites Government websites to assess accessibility levels for European citizens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their established reputation for digital innovation and strong civil societies, the countries of Scandinavia and Central Europe ranked high in most categories, along with Eastern European tech powerhouses such as Estonia.
One notable participant, however, was Malta. Known more for its thriving tourism business than its start-up culture, the Mediterranean nation has yet to establish a solid reputation for innovation in digital government services. However, the Benchmark data reveals that at least nine out of ten government services in Malta can be found via a government portal, with users able to access these services without the need to print application forms or go in person to a counter. government services. Indeed, as other European countries struggle to get their digital identity systems off the ground, it is possible to access over 90% of government services in Malta through the national digital identity system.
The reason for Malta’s success in eGovernment is largely due to its long-term investments in IT. In 2014, he launched the Digital Malta Strategy, a vision to make islands thrive as a “digitally enabled nation in all sectors of society”, with a particular focus on the use of ICT to improve access to health care and social services, improving education in all demographics and creating high-quality jobs. Building on this momentum three years later, the country launched the € 40 million CONvErGE project to bolster its nascent eGovernment program by developing new systems and platforms for the tourism and disaster response sectors, as well as building its healthcare infrastructure. national called “eHealth”.
The physical size of the islands – which together form an area five times smaller than London – has also been a key factor in Malta’s success in driving digital government initiatives, explains Professor Ernest Cachia, Dean of the ICT Faculty. of the University of Malta. “The full range of government services exist, but on a smaller scale, so we can get the results faster,” says Cachia. “There are advantages to being small”.
The eGovernment benchmark data also shows that two other relatively small states, Estonia and Luxembourg, came after Malta as the highest scoring countries for digital government services. Technical monitor previously reported on how countries like Estonia have pioneered eGovernment services such as digital identity systems, often through innovative projects such as its nationwide hackathon, in which developers from around the world have been invited to take part. .
While size may not be the primary determinant behind a country’s success in delivering digital government services, it can play a significant role in enabling states to react quickly and efficiently in the face of emerging trends. A similar conclusion came in a study by Nesta on how innovation occurs in five countries with populations of less than ten million. “Lacking large internal markets, or the scale to be at the forefront of research in every field, they have maximized their existing advantages and developed others,” the report’s authors wrote.
The success of these countries, of course, is not shared equally across the European bloc. According to the eGovernment benchmark data, while citizens’ access to public online services has been facilitated in 77% of European countries, the main e-health services are still in their infantry. Only three countries – again, Malta, Luxembourg and Estonia – have eHealth maturity scores above 90%, meaning citizens of these three countries are well supported by digital health services.
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An analysis of the benchmark data also shows that at least eight countries have an eHealth maturity score below 50%, which means in contrast that people in these countries have to resort to non-digital methods to access certain health services. In Albania, for example, citizens would not be able to obtain a European health card online or apply for an electronic health record. Likewise in Austria, teleconsultations with doctors are not available and citizens do not have access to digital means to record and reschedule hospital appointments. In France and Germany, meanwhile, efforts to create online services to obtain an “electronic prescription” from a hospital doctor are currently lagging behind those in Spain and Italy.
The inequality of access to these key health services is further accentuated when it comes to migrants. Benchmark survey data shows that non-nationals can only access three out of ten services (34%) online, with the lack of English information on hospital websites as the main obstacle. Although the maturity of digital government services has progressed since the pandemic, there is still room for improvement, explains Marc Reinhardt, head of public sector and health at IT consulting firm Capgemini.
“We have seen that good digital capabilities in the healthcare space have enabled countries to better cope with the pandemic by helping to organize vaccination initiatives and decentralize treatments during the lockdown,” says Reinhardt. Nonetheless, “This year’s eGovernment Benchmark Report identifies eHealth as a clear area for improvement with regards to accessibility and user experience across the board.”
Closing the gap when it comes to providing eHealth services will be a key challenge for EU countries in the coming years and there are clear signs that the regional bloc is taking the development of eGovernment services seriously. In July, EU Member States agreed on a key policy agenda for achieving digital transformation across the region, aimed at helping countries achieve the transformation goals set out in the Digital Compass 2030, a set of policies that cover competencies and digital infrastructure. But an analysis of the EU’s goals to improve the bloc’s digital infrastructure across the board shows that Member States have a long way to go.
While improving digital literacy is not too far off the targets set for 2030, other aspects of EU plans such as improving access to 5G, for example, remain far off. Countries such as Denmark and Finland are already close to meeting their targets for the share of SMEs having a ‘basic level of digital intensity’, but other countries such as Romania and Bulgaria continue to lag behind. It remains to be seen whether EU Member States that have demonstrated success in implementing digital governance initiatives can distribute their resources and expertise across the region.