AI Technologies may Revolutionize Europe’s Health Sector

A robust research and innovation ecosystem, rich health data, and a high-standard health system are Europe’s crucial assets that can help revolutionize the country’s health sector and make it a worldwide leader in health-based artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

The EU’s high standard health system provides a strong foundation for the roll out of AI technologies. Image Credit: ©taa22 – Adobe

The use of AI applications in the healthcare sector is increasing quickly.

Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, difficulties associated with limited healthcare professionals and the aging populations were already fueling up the implementation of AI technologies in the healthcare sector.

This trend was further expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic. One example of various AI applications is the real-time contact tracing apps utilized to track the spread of the COVID-19 virus and to strengthen the public health response to it. Robotics and AI are also integral to developing and producing novel COVID-19 vaccines.

A new JRC study has demonstrated that European biotech firms that depend on AI have been strong collaborators in the international race to supply a COVID-19 vaccine.

On the basis of this experience, the JRC analysis emphasized the EU’s strengths in the 'AI in health' field and identified the difficulties it still needs to overcome to become a worldwide leader.

High-Standard Health System Safeguards Reliability of AI Health Applications

The high-standard health system of Europe lays a strong groundwork for introducing AI technologies. The country’s high-quality standards will make sure that health innovations enabled by AI technologies minimize risks and maximizes benefits.

The JRC analysis has proposed that just like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is currently regarded as an international reference, the EU is at the helm of seating a yardstick for international standards of AI in health in terms of transparency, safety, liability, and trustworthiness.

At present, the European Commission is preparing a detailed package of measures to tackle problems posed by the advent of AI, such as a European legal framework for AI to deal with safety risks and fundamental rights that are specific to the AI systems, and also rules on liability associated with novel technologies.

Strong European Research Ecosystem Supported by EU Funding

Currently, the EU is already well placed in using AI technologies in the healthcare sector—and is only slightly behind China but on par with the United States. But considering the research capacities of the EU, there is certainly more potential.

The JRC study observed the robust investment of European biotech firms in research works: in the EU, nearly two-thirds of all medical AI players are focused on studies against around one-third of AI players in China.

As a result, Europe has a robust and expanded research and innovation landscape in the field of AI in health. European firms are specifically strong in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, health technology assessment, and health diagnostics.

The research framework of the EU has a crucial role to play in the European research and innovation ecosystem in this field. Published in 2020, a JRC report indicates that a total of 146 projects related to AI in health have been introduced under the Horizon 2020 framework programme.

The financial support for AI in health-related research works has been growing over time and has reached more than €100 million in 2020.

The Case of BioNTech

BioNTech is one of the first firms to design an effective COVID-19 vaccine and this reinforces the strength of Europe’s research and innovation capabilities in deep-tech innovations. Since its early days, the German biotech unicorn has gained from the EU’s research and innovation support.

Along with its subsidiaries, BioNTech had taken part in 10 EU framework studies and has also received almost €10 million in funding. Besides this, BioNTech and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have finalized a €100 million debt financing deal to support the former’s vaccine program and to diversify its production capacity.

BioNTech demonstrates the power behind EU funding that is extended to new and, at times, tentative projects that have the possibility to make groundbreaking innovations and transform the sector.

Need to Facilitate Market Uptake

The JRC study indicates that to tap the full potential of European AI in health, additional efforts are required to capitalize on the research capacities of the EU.

A system needs to be created by Europe that helps translate research outcomes into commercial products and to support their commercialization. One solution could be to upgrade the present-day initiatives that are aiming to attract private investors to offer the required capital for the commercialization of the technologies designed within the EU framework projects.

Capitalizing on High-Quality Data

The European health industry, as a by-product of the strengths of EU health systems, has immense research, industrial, and public sector data, which can drive the advancement of AI-models.

Leveraging this high-quality data is now highly critical for the EU to handle competitions from huge digital platforms that are penetrating the European health market.

However, the road ahead is fraught with barriers. The present disintegration of European data protection rules and data repositories is rendering it difficult for industrial players to apply sensitive health information.

The goal behind the adoption of the European Health Data Space is to tackle the challenges with respect to the collection, interoperability, use, re-use and cross-border migration of high-quality health data in a safe setting.

Further Reading

Earlier in 2020, the European Commission had invested in the use of AI to accelerate COVID-19 diagnosis and to enhance the treatment of the affected patients. To support the efforts of medical personnel, a software designed to examine images of pulmonary infections was launched in 10 hospitals throughout Europe.


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