Being smart about our health: how artificial intelligence can help transform Europe’s health sector

A high-standard health system, rich health data and a strong research and innovation ecosystem are Europe’s key assets that can help transform its health sector and make the EU a global leader in health-related artificial intelligence applications. 

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications in healthcare is increasing rapidly.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges linked to our ageing populations and shortages of healthcare professionals were already driving up the adoption of AI technologies in healthcare. 

The pandemic has all but accelerated this trend. Real-time contact tracing apps are just one example of the many AI applications used to monitor the spread of the virus and to reinforce the public health response to it.

AI and robotics are also key for the development and manufacturing of new vaccines against COVID-19.

A fresh JRC analysis shows that European biotech companies relying on AI have been strong partners in the global race to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine.

Based on this experience, the analysis highlights the EU’s strengths in the “AI in health” domain and identifies the challenges it still has to overcome to become a global leader.

High standard health system safeguards reliability of AI health applications

Europe’s high standard health system provides a strong foundation for the roll out of AI technologies.

Its high quality standards will ensure that AI-enabled health innovations maximise benefits and minimise risks.  

The JRC study suggests that, similarly to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is now considered a global reference, the EU is in a position to set the benchmark for global standards of AI in health in terms of safety, trustworthiness, transparency and liability.

The European Commission is currently preparing a comprehensive package of measures to address issues posed by the introduction of AI, including a European legal framework for AI to address fundamental rights and safety risks specific to the AI systems, as well as rules on liability related to new technologies.

Strong European research ecosystem supported by EU funding

At the moment, the EU is already well positioned in the application of AI in the healthcare domain - slightly behind China but on par with the US.

But judging from the EU’s research capacities, there is more potential.

The JRC analysis notes the strong investment of European biotech companies in research: in the EU, almost two thirds of all medical AI players are involved in research, against approximately one-third in China.

Consequently, Europe has a strong and diversified research and innovation ecosystem in the area of AI in health.

European companies are particularly strong in health diagnostics, health technology assessment, medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

The EU’s research framework programmes play an important role in the European research and innovation landscape in this domain.

A JRC report published in 2020 indicates that 146 projects linked to AI in health have been launched under the Horizon 2020 framework programme.

The funding of AI in health related projects has been increasing over time, reaching over €100 million in 2020.

The case of BioNTech

BioNTech, one of the first companies to have developed an effective vaccine against COVID-19, is an indication of the strength of Europe’s R&I capabilities in deep-tech innovation.

The German biotech unicorn has benefited from the EU R&I support since its early days.

BioNTech and its subsidiaries have participated in ten EU framework projects and received nearly €10 million in funding.

In addition, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and BioNTech concluded a €100 million debt financing agreement to support the company´s vaccine programme and to expand the firm´s manufacturing capacity. 

The company is an illustration of the power behind EU funding provided to novel and sometimes uncertain projects that have the potential to generate breakthrough innovations and revolutionise the industry.

Need to facilitate market uptake

The JRC analysis suggests that to leverage the full potential of European AI in health, more efforts are needed to capitalise on the EU’s research capacities.

Europe needs to create a system, which enables to translate research results into a marketable products and to support their commercialisation.

One option could be to scale-up existing initiatives that aim to attract private investors to provide capital for the commercialisation of the technologies developed within the EU framework projects.

Capitalising on high quality data

As by-product of the strengths of European health systems, the European health sector has a wealth of industrial, research and public sector data, which can fuel the development of AI-models.

Capitalising on this high quality data is now crucial for the EU to face competition from large digital platforms that are entering the European health market.

But the road ahead is not without obstacles. The current fragmentation of European data repositories and data protection rules are making it hard for industrial players to use sensitive health data.

The implementation of the European Health Data Space aims to address the challenges regarding the collection, use, re-use, interoperability and cross-border movement of high quality health data in a secure environment.

Further reading

In 2020, the European Commission invested in the use of Artificial Intelligence to speed up the diagnosis of COVID-19 and to improve the treatment of patients.

A software developed to assist the work of medical staff by analysing images of pulmonary infections was introduced in 10 hospitals across Europe.

Being smart about our health: how artificial intelligence can help transform Europe’s health sector