We have previously provided updates on the ongoing European and national policy developments on digital health that will transform future healthcare delivery and disease management. A recent development concerns the Belgian federal government’s announcement (link in Dutch) that it is investing EUR 3.25 million (approximately USD 3.62 million) in trial projects to test digital health-related apps.

The investment is part of the government’s ‘Digital Health Valley’ initiative, which aims to create the best possible conditions for private-sector investments in the Belgian digital health sector.

The call for pilot project applications was launched (link in Dutch) on 1 July 2016. Anyone working the Belgian health sector may submit a proposal, which should preferably relate to one of the following principal areas:

  • diabetes;
  • mental health;
  • acute stroke care;
  • cardiovascular care; and
  • care for patients with chronic pain.

Consistent with the established European guiding principles relating to personal data protection, a further key criterion for any project is that it must meet certain privacy and security requirements. If approved, each project will receive a slice of the €3.25 million by way of compensation to health care providers for trialing the use of health care apps. For example, a cardiologist might use the results of a heart rate app rather than obtaining manual heart rate measurements in consultation with patients.

The call for proposals is open until 30 September 2016, and the approved projects are due to commence in 2017 for a duration of six months each.

The initiative is part of Belgium’s broader strategy to elevate the country’s digital profile. In 2015, the government launched ‘Digital Belgium’, a project aimed at putting Belgium amongst the top three digitally performing countries in Europe by 2020. As part of this push, the government envisages 1,000 new Belgian-based start-ups and 50,000 new jobs.

In 2015, the European Commission launched the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), used to measure the progress of EU Member States towards a digital economy and society. The index is composed of over 30 different indicators, which fall within the following five policy areas:

  • Connectivity (how widespread, fast and affordable broadband is);
  • Human Capital/Digital Skills (digital skills of the population and workforce);
  • Use of Internet (prevalence of online activities);
  • Integration of Digital Technology (use by businesses of key digital technologies, e.g. e-invoices and cloud services); and
  • Digital Public Services (e.g. e-health).

In the DESI, Belgium is given a similar ranking to that of Ireland and the United Kingdom, meaning that it scores above the EU as whole and is a ‘good performer’, but that its development is currently slower than the EU average. In contrast, top performers within the EU (including Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal) have a strong digital base coupled with continuous development at a rapid pace.

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Source: European Commission Fact Sheet: What is the Digital Economy and Society Index? (25 February 2016)

It remains to be seen whether Belgium’s ‘Digital Health Valley’, supported by the government’s injection of funds to test health-related apps, will help propel Belgium to the forefront of DESI rankings.