Women’s Health Rights can Guide International Climate Litigation: KlimaSeniorinnen v. Switzerland before the European Court of Human Rights

Hannah van Kolfschooten and Angela Hefti

All over the world, individuals are taking governments to court for their role in climate change, or rather, their “climate inaction”. The 2022 Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation Policy Report shows that strategic litigation cases to enforce climate laws and policies have doubled since 2015. On 29 March 2023, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard its first climate case: KlimaSeniorinnen v. Switzerland. A group of senior women is suing Switzerland for failing to protect them from the harms of climate change. This case is likely the first climate case ever to be decided by a human rights court and is important for two reasons. First, it centers around health rights. Second, it is a case involving women’s health. It shows how women’s health rights could guide international climate litigation.

KlimaSeniorinnen (German for ‘senior climate women’) are suing Switzerland for neglecting the target of the Paris Agreement and failing to take action to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Switzerland’s temperature is increasing two to three times faster than the global average, with extreme, life-threatening heatwaves as a result. KlimaSeniorinnen argues that Switzerland’s lack of action has violated their right to health, as interpreted under the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, they claim that as women they are more vulnerable to the effects of heatwaves, which exacerbate their existing health problems, and they are therefore disproportionately affected by Switzerland’s climate inaction. Rising temperatures affect women’s health more than men’s, especially pregnant people and heat-related mortality is higher in women than in men.

Climate change is the biggest health emergency of this century and is a new social determinant of health, impacting health directly and indirectly. We can no longer ignore the growing evidence of the impact of climate change on human health, especially for already marginalized populations. While the European Convention does not protect the right to a healthy environment as such, the ECtHR has a long track record of holding governments responsible when they fail to protect the health of their citizens from environmental harms. Examples include methane explosions caused by industrial activities, and toxic emissions from steel plants and toxic industrial waste plants, as well as natural hazards such as earthquakes. This strand of case law will form the basis for the Court to decide the Swiss climate case.

The ECtHR will have to examine the KlimaSeniorinnen case from both a health and a women’s rights perspective. A common issue is whether it is possible for applicants to prove in court that they are directly affected by climate change. In climate cases direct cause is difficult to establish but in this case, the applicants are suffering from heat-related health problems and thus are victims of climate change. To demonstrate the direct effects of extreme heat on their mental and physical health, the Swiss women are providing detailed medical reports. One has severe heat intolerance due to a cardiovascular illness, another has a pacemaker, and a third suffers chronic asthma, exacerbated by heat stress. Their age aggravates these health problems: as all women are aged over 75, they are at risk of dying from heat-related health problems.

Even though the Swiss women did not explicitly raise gender equality arguments, the ECtHR ought to examine the case from a nondiscrimination perspective, as gender inequality and climate change are undeniably interconnected. The ECtHR is increasingly ruling that special human rights guarantees are required because of intersectional factors such as gender and age. Switzerland is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW), also known as the international bill of women’s rights. This treaty requires Switzerland to provide equal protection to women, for example, in accessing healthcare. The KlimaSeniorinnen case may just be the start of strategic human rights litigation at the intersection of climate change and health. The Court’s rich case law on reproductive rightsdomestic violence, and sexual violence allows for other links between climate change and women’s health. Cases linking increased rates of domestic violence, forced marriage, and trafficking with climate change and women’s health can be expected.

KlimaSeniorinnen v. Switzerland confirms that climate change is first and foremost a health issue which exacerbates existing patterns of health inequity. The Swiss women make a strong argument that the government has failed to protect them from climate harm. Winning this case would benefit the planet and boost women’s health rights across the Europe, as the Court would recognize governments’ responsibilities to reduce health inequities experienced by women.

Hannah van Kolfschooten is a researcher/lecturer with the Law Centre for Health and Life at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is currently a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, USA. 

Angela Hefti is a Swiss National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, USA.

This post was originally published with Health and Human Rights Journal.

Please cite as follows:

Hannah van Kolfschooten and Angela Hefti, ‘Women’s Health Rights can Guide International Climate Litigation: KlimaSeniorinnen v. Switzerland before the European Court of Human Rights’, Health and Human Rights Journal, 15 May 2023 at <https://www.hhrjournal.org/2023/05/womens-health-rights-can-guide-international-climate-litigation-klimaseniorinnen-v-switzerland-before-the-european-court-of-human-rights/&gt;

The Council of Europe’s Artificial Intelligence Convention: Implications for Health and Patients

The Council of Europe, the most important international human rights organization on the European continent, currently is drafting a Convention on Artificial Intelligence, Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law (AI Convention). The Convention aims to protect fundamental rights against the harms of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and is expected to become a global leading convention, as non-European states such as the United States (U.S.) are considering becoming signatories.

As health care is one of the top industries for AI, the forthcoming AI Convention will have important implications for the protection of health and patients. This post gives a brief outline of the background, scope, and purpose of the AI Convention. It goes on to flag common human rights issues associated with medical AI and then touches upon the most important health rights implications of the current text of the AI Convention.

  1. Background, Scope, and Purpose

Since 1949, the Council of Europe and its human rights court have played an important role in the protection and promotion of human rights in Europe through a long list of treaties, resolutions, and court decisions (some of which relate to new technologies). The Council’s scope is much broader than the European Union’s (EU): it has 47 member states (including all 27 EU Member States) and 5 observer states (including the U.S. and Japan). The observer states are not bound by the Council of Europe but can choose to sign on to the AI Convention — committing to its rules as well.

The AI Convention, which is expected by the end of 2023, will exist in parallel to and aims to complement the EU’s forthcoming AI Act and other regulatory initiatives, including the U.S. AI Bill of Rights. The AI Act focuses on the marketing of products using AI within the EU internal market, while the AI Convention focuses on the protection of the fundamental rights of people affected by AI systems. The Convention is principle-based and will — unlike the AI Act and the AI Bill of Rights  — introduce legally binding individual human rights, which also will apply to citizens of non-EU states. The exact scope of the Convention, however, is still under discussion, with states like the U.S., the U.K., and Japan advocating that it remains limited to the public sector.

  1. Medical AI: Challenges for Health and Human Rights

While medical AI can improve the quality and efficiency of health care, it also comes with several risks to health and human rights. System errors in widely used AI could cause mass patient injuries, for example, in AI-powered robot-assisted surgery. Unrepresentative or low-quality datasets used to train AI models may lead to incorrect medical decisions causing health damage, such as false diagnoses or wrong treatment decisions. When datasets reflect existing biases in society, specific populations face greater risk of health harms, reinforcing discrimination and health inequality. The enormous ‘data hunger’ of medical AI may also affect medical privacy, and the opaque nature of many AI applications may put existing health practices and other patients’ rights under pressure, such as the provision of information, informed consent, and legal redress.

  1. The Meaning of the AI Convention for Health and Patients

Lifecycle Regulation of General AI Systems

The definition of the proposed AI Convention is rather broad and includes most medical AI applications: “a machine-based system that is capable of informing or autonomously generating outputs such as predictions, recommendations or decisions using machine and/or human-based data and inputs and influencing the environment that it interacts with.” This means it covers applications like ChatGPT-assisted diagnosis, AI-based fall detection in elderly care facilities, AI-assisted surgery, and menstruation cycle trackers.

If the scope would be limited to uses in the public sector, it would still cover a fair amount of medical AI applications, such as automated disease surveillance, social benefits distribution, and most COVID-19 apps, plus many public health care systems. Moreover, the AI Convention applies to the entire lifecycle of AI: the design, development, and application of AI systems. This is especially important for adaptive AI systems that evolve over time.

This sets the Convention apart from the EU’s AI Act, which focuses on regulating the development phase, and only stipulates strict rules for “high-risk” AI medical devices.

Enforceable Rights for Patients

The AI Convention departs from the understanding that all human rights are potentially impacted by the growing use of AI systems, instead focusing on the specific rights to non-discrimination, privacy and data protection, transparency rights, and the right to redress for harm. It establishes these as enforceable rights — filling an often-criticized gap of other AI regulations.

Foremost, the Convention stipulates that all AI systems undergo a human rights assessment before deployment. Then, the Convention recognizes the right to non-discrimination, which is important for health equity — i.e., in cases of limited internet access in remote areas and insufficient digital skills to understand AI tools. The Convention protects privacy and data protection rights, setting high requirements for data protection, which is important for patients who often share intimate data with their doctor. The Convention also equips patients with the right to redress for harm, requiring robust frameworks for accountability and liability — a much-needed and currently absent solution for medical AI causing harm. The transparency rights put forward by the Convention contribute to the creation of a relationship of trust between patient and doctor and ensure informed consent to medical treatment.

Especially for health care — a sector that is mostly regulated locally — minimal human rights standards are important, as they give patients in all Member States the means to arm themselves against potentially harmful medical AI.

The Council of Europe Cares About Health

Generally, the AI Convention is promising for patients because of the Council of Europe’s long track record of protecting the health and human rights of patients. The Council has published many recommendations on medical-ethical issues aiming for stronger human rights protections in the medical field (i.e., health governance, organ donation, medical data protection). The Human Rights Court has enforced protection for patients against — inter alia — forced medical treatments, medical data breaches, and health discrimination. It has also established strong obligations for states to actively protect the health and patients’ rights of their citizens. Many states have changed their health practices and laws following Court orders, for example, for involuntary psychiatric commitment.

In short: health and patients’ rights benefit from a human-rights approach. The Council of Europe’s AI Convention, being the first binding fundamental rights instrument for AI negotiated at such a widespread scale, holds the potential of uplifting health and patients’ rights worldwide, when medical AI becomes common practice in health care.

Originally posted on Bill of Health, the blog of the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School. Please cite as:

Hannah van Kolfschooten, ‘The Council of Europe’s Artificial Intelligence Convention: Implications for Health and Patients’, 18 April 2023, Bill of Health, <https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/2023/04/18/council-of-europe-artificial-intelligence-convention/&gt;.

Five “Big MedTech” Myths about Medical AI Debunked

Criticism of the European Union’s AI Act by the HealthTech Industry is often based on incorrect assumptions, and is in conflict with health and fundamental rights principles, write Hannah van Kolfschooten, Janneke van Oirschot, and Claudia Nicastro.

The European Union’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act is a world-first attempt to create comprehensive AI regulation, to protect both the internal market and fundamental rights. It also applies to AI medical devices. Defending its economic interests, the MedTech industry has fiercely criticised the “burdensome regulatory framework” of medical devices, including those in the AI Act proposal. Rather than consider them burdensome, we argue that, to protect health and fundamental rights, stronger regulation of medical AI is needed, and debunk five common MedTech myths about medical AI. 

Myth 1: “We do not need the AI Act to regulate medical AI: the MDR offers enough protection for fundamental rights” 

MedTech Europe argues that ‘AI-enabled medical technologies have been accessing the EU market safely for years, accelerated by the introduction of the Medical Devices Regulation.’ But, MedTech neglects the limited scope of application of the MDR, which uses a strict definition for medical devices and has a focus on quality and safety.

Medical devices vary widely and can be anything from medical facemasks to defibrillators. However, the incredible surge in digital health technologies, including those that use AI, is not well accounted for in this MDR. Indeed, the MDR lacks specific provisions for medical AI and does not have the explicit aim to protect fundamental rights, which the AI Act does. This while medical AI holds different risks to the health and fundamental rights of patients than other medical devices. The AI Act has a broader application than the MDR and does protect data quality and transparency, which in turn provides for more fundamental rights protection for patients using medical AI.

Myth 2: “More regulation will delay access to lifesaving medical devices” 

Pharmaceutical companies are famous for arguing that more regulation will endanger access to “lifesaving medicines”. MedTech has often made the same claim about medical devices. MedTech Europe, for example, argues that “by bringing in another regulatory layer, the AI Act risks undermining a delicate and well-balanced regulatory environment.”

Medical AI can only be ‘lifesaving’ when it’s effective and we are certain it meets high standards of quality and safety. Medical AI holds more risks to the health and fundamental rights of patients than other medical devices as it can be used by doctors for important decisions with a big impact on patients’ health. Its dependence on huge amounts of data poses risks for privacy and data protection rights, and biases in low-quality training data can lead to discrimination and injury. The AI Act’s requirements aim to guarantee better quality and safety of medical devices than the MDR regime. Also, the regulatory regime for medicines is far stricter than the medical devices regime, while medical AI may pose similar risks to health.

Myth 3: “Health and wellbeing apps do not hold risks for fundamental rights violations” 

This is an assumption that underlies the new AI Act. Unfortunately, the Act misclassifies some types of medical AI: health and wellbeing apps fall under the minimal risk class in the AI Act, meaning that they are not subject to specific requirements. However, their classification does not consider that these apps hold several privacy-related risks and can lead to discrimination. An example is apps for post-traumatic stress symptoms, where low-quality of data may lead to wrong treatment pathways and advice. Since these apps are used by vulnerable groups, these kinds of suggestions can be dangerous. This type of app also presents cybersecurity issues that lead to the violation of fundamental rights, for example, when the app shares sensitive information with unidentified third-party marketers and advertisers who misuse the information at a later date.

Myth 4: “Safety of patients trumps protection of privacy” 

The MedTech industry focuses on product safety over privacy. However, privacy is a fundamental right and should always be protected as a minimum requirement to guarantee the human dignity of people, especially the most vulnerable groups such as older people. In this case, ‘computers are increasingly guiding decisions about elder care – and tracking everything from toilet visits to whether someone has bathed’. Since privacy is a key condition for trust in healthcare, it must remain a core value to ensure a good healthcare system. In fact, constant surveillance changes patients’ behavior, so that, knowing that they are being monitored, people tend to hide their real condition. Finally, people, especially older adults, are often afraid of technology, which can worsen if their privacy is not guaranteed.

Myth 5: “An innovation oriented regulatory framework will lead to high-quality healthcare” 

The MedTech industry claims that focusing the regulation on innovation and quality will foster better patient outcomes. What they seem to overlook is that we won’t have quality care unless we have comprehensively protected fundamental rights, and for that, we need the AI Act. Although there is no clear definition of quality of care, the WHO stresses the importance of protecting fundamental rights for high-quality healthcare. In particular, the right to health as ‘the right to the highest attainable standard of health’ implies certain minimum human rights protection standards. It includes the right to control one’s health and body and to be free from interference, as well as the right to a system of health protection that gives everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy the highest attainable level of health. Therefore, high-quality care is a means to guarantee our rights, not the ends, and should be treated as such.

As explained above, these five myths are unfounded and often based on incorrect assumptions. It is clear that further regulation of medical AI is necessary to ensure better protection of patients’ rights.

By Hannah van Kolfschooten, Janneke van Oirschot and Claudia Nicastro – originally posted on HAIweb. Please cite as: Hannah van Kolfschooten, Janneke van Oirschot & Claudia Nicastro, ‘Five “Big MedTech” Myths about Medical AI Debunked’, 1 April 2023, Health Action International, available at: <https://haiweb.org/five-big-medtech-myths-about-medical-ai-debunked/&gt;.

Health protection is non-negotiable in the AI Act negotiations

A health-centric approach to the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act is essential for the protection of health and fundamental rights of European citizens, write Hannah van Kolfschooten and Janneke van Oirschot. 

The European Commission’s proposal for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act has been the topic of a heated debate since its publication in April 2021. Civil society organisations believe the proposal falls short on fundamental rights protection, industry is worried it will stifle innovation, and governments fear consequences for national security. We critique the AI Act for neglecting the risks health AI pose to patients’ health and fundamental rights.

The 3,000 amendments to the Act tabled by political groups in the European Parliament say a lot about how controversial regulation of AI really is. This summer, the Parliament’s co-rapporteurs start the negotiation process with compromise amendments. Our message to MEPs, who will need to vote on the amendments is the following: Make health non-negotiable. A health-centric approach to the AI Act is essential for the protection of health and fundamental rights of European citizens, in particular the rights to access to healthcare, non-discrimination and privacy.  

AI is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. AI systems are software-based technologies that use certain data-driven approaches to solve specific problems. What all AI systems have in common, is that they recognise patterns in enormous amounts of data.

AI in the health sector is not like AI in any other sector and deserves special consideration because (1) people’s health is at stake, (2) people are in a vulnerable position when in need of healthcare, (3) the collection of health data has dramatically increased in recent times and (4) health data is historically littered with bias. Because of these characteristics, health AI faces unique risks that need to be specifically addressed in the AI Act. 

Take disease outbreak surveillance as an example. Many people with flu-like symptoms use Google for self-diagnosis. AI can use this data to monitor and predict the spread of infectious diseases. This can be useful for public health officials to make decisions about infectious disease control and how to distribute care resources.

But how accurate are these AI systems when the model is based on subjective user data? Limited regulation of the quality of health AI will lead to distrust in public health and healthcare, breeding hesitancy in access to healthcare. What is more, increased use and sharing of health data threatens privacy and data protection rights.

Another example is the use of AI for medical diagnostics. AI can be used to identify skin cancer in images of skin lesions, after being trained on the basis of thousands of images of “healthy” and cancerous skin lesions. But what happens when image datasets were non-representative, incomplete or of low-quality?

Biases in the training data can lead to discrimination and individual injury or even death. Especially racial bias may lead to incorrect diagnoses and deepen existing socio-economic inequality, something that is not taken into account in current regulation on medical technology. Additionally, lack of transparency and explainability threatens patients’ rights to information and informed consent to medical treatment.

These are just a couple of illustrations of the risks of AI usage for health, one of the most popular sectors for AI deployment in the European Union. Yet, the AI Act does not specifically address health AI and does not provide solutions for its key risks. It can’t be stressed enough that health must be prioritised when MEPs negotiate their amendments over the coming months, with some tabled amendments that deserve particular support. 

Foremost, given its extensive risk, important AI uses in health and healthcare should be marked as high-risk, which will ensure more stringent regulatory requirements. 

Second, high-risk AI should undergo a fundamental rights impact assessment, which takes into account risks to human health. Also technical documentation of health AI should include an assessment of its risks for health, safety and fundamental rights. 

Finally, AI systems that disadvantage groups based on health status should be prohibited completely. 

Similarly, we call on MEPs to strongly oppose amendments that remove health AI from the current list of ‘high-risk AI uses’ or add extra requirements for AI systems to be marked high-risk. 

It’s high time to take on a health-centric approach to the AI Act. It’s worth reiterating: health protection is non-negotiable in the AI Act negotiations. 

By Hannah van Kolfschooten and Janneke van Oirschot – originally posted on EURACTIV. Please cite as: Hannah van Kolfschooten & Janneke van Oirschot, ‘Health protection is non-negotiable in the AI Act negotiations’, 18 August 2022, EURACTIV, available at: <https://www.euractiv.com/section/digital/opinion/health-protection-is-non-negotiable-in-the-artificial-intelligence-act-negotiations/>

Call for Action: High Time to Prioritise Health in the EU Artificial Intelligence Act

Last year, the European Commission published its long awaited legislative proposal on artificial intelligence (AI): the Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA). Since then, a heated debate has been going on about its contents, as many civil society organisations believe the proposal falls short on fundamental rights protection. Various committees within the European Parliament have proposed amendments to the Commission’s AI proposal (e.g. ENVIJURI). After an initial report with amendments from the two rapporteurs, it was up to the LIBE/IMCO Committee members to table amendments, and well, they did. In total, MEPs tabled the astronomical number of 3312 amendments. We were glad to find amongst them multiple amendments proposed by HAI. While this is a promising first step to bring health into the picture, it doesn’t mean that they will make the cut to the final act, as there are multiple negotiation and voting processes ahead. It is essential that the AI Act takes a more health-centric approach and that the health amendments make it to the final Act. We call on MEPs to prioritise health when negotiating their amendments over the coming months. Read below why the health sector needs special attention.


AI is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. AI systems are software-based technologies that use certain data-driven approaches to solve specific problems. In the health sector, AI has various applications. One can think of the use of AI systems to predict diagnosis and the best course of treatment, but also for allocation of hospital beds and best placement of ambulances. Governments can use AI systems for the prediction of the spread of infectious diseases and health insurers can deploy AI systems for fraud detection. What all AI systems have in common, is that they recognise patterns in enormous amounts of data. The outcome of the system – e.g. the prediction or decision – depends on the data that was used for development. It’s often difficult to determine how the system reached a specific outcome.   


• Bias in training data may lead to discrimination and individual injury/death (i.e., racial bias may lead to incorrect diagnoses); and deepen existing socio-economic inequalities;

• Technical system errors in AI could lead to mass patient injuries because of widespread use;

• Increased use and sharing of health data threatens privacy and data protection rights of patients;

• Lack of transparency and explainability threatens patients’ rights to information and to informed consent to medical treatment;

• Lack of clarity on accountability threatens patients’ rights to legal redress and compensation;

• Lack of regulation of health-related AI may lead to a lack of trust in healthcare; affecting access to healthcare;

• Issues with cybersecurity threaten patients’ health in the case of cyberattacks on for example insulin pumps and pacemakers.


Health is one of the industries that will be most affected by AI and one of the most popular sectors for AI deployment in the EU. Yet, the AIA Proposal does not specifically address the health sector and does not provide solutions for the key risks of health-related AI for the health and rights of patients.

To address these risks, we propose the following main amendments to the AIA Proposal:

  • Signal risks of AI for health, patients’ rights and access to healthcare in the preamble.
  • Adhere to the 1948 WHO definition of health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
  • Classify all health-related AI systems as ‘high risk’ in Annex III (i.e. public health, pharmaceuticals and wellbeing).
  • Include individual rights in the AIA + mirrored corresponding obligations for providers (i.e. the right to object to automated decision-making in healthcare, the right to an effective remedy, obligation to conduct a fundamental rights impact assessment).
  • Extend the prohibition on social scoring to include private actors (i.e. health insurance companies).
  • Extend the prohibition on remote biometric identification to all actors (i.e. public health authorities).

By Hannah van Kolfschooten and Janneke van Oirschot – originally posted on haiweb.org. Please cite as: Hannah van Kolfschooten & Janneke van Oirschot, ‘Call for Action: High Time to Prioritise Health in the EU Artificial Intelligence Act’, 24 June 2022, Health Action International, available at: <https://haiweb.org/prioritise-health-in-the-artificial-intelligence-act/&gt;.

A Health-Oriented Approach to the Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles

Hannah van Kolfschooten and Sofia Palmieri

Europe is in the midst of a digital revolution transforming many aspects of daily life. In the healthcare sector, digitalisation may change today’s values and rights. Health tech developments range from relatively simple digital solutions—such as online appointment systems and digital health records—to artificial intelligence (AI) applications—such as AI-powered automated breast cancer diagnosis systems and AI-assisted automatic seizure detection. Recognising both the potential and risks of extensive digitalisation, the European Union (EU) is pushing for a stronger and safer EU digital single market. To this end, the European Commission has proposed a Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles. As health lawyers, we advocate for a greater focus on health protection in the EU’s digital single market strategy, especially regarding medical AI applications and automated decision-making.

In this post, we argue that while the Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles has little direct legal effects on patients, its strong political power may better protect patients against the risks of medical technology. Given the special nature of digital patients’ rights, we will propose a health-specific interpretation of the Declaration.


In the healthcare sector, the impact of new technology is particularly tremendous. While there are many benefits—such as the ability to deliver tailored patient care in a timely and cost-effective manner—at the same time, health tech can negatively affect health and wellbeing. The use of AI in healthcare poses several risks to patients’ health and integrity. If technical errors occur in the AI software and the system is widely used, this could lead to mass patient injuries, for example, when AI is used for medication calculations or assistive surgery robotics. Moreover, when unrepresentative or low-quality datasets are used to train AI models, the systems may reflect biases leading to discrimination and inequality in healthcare, eventually causing health problems. For example, AI software used to predict individual cardiovascular risks may perform better for men than women because women have been underrepresented in the training dataset, which may lead to the underdiagnosis of women and unequal distribution of care.

At the same time, medical AI may affect the protection of patients’ rights, such as medical privacy and informed consent. The digital transformation in health is leading to an increased exchange of data, from patients’ medical records to clinical trial results. This challenges privacy rights because of issues with access, use and control of personal data. The need for large datasets may encourage tech companies to pressure individuals to provide personal data. The exact use and location of data may change over time, and data leaks and the possibility of re-identifying personal data may impact patients’ personal lives. Another issue arises from the untransparent nature of many AI applications. It is difficult for users (health professionals) and end-users (patients) to understand how the application reached a certain conclusion. Opacity in the AI’s decision-making process may put existing health practices and patients’ rights under pressure, such as the provision of information, informed consent and legal redress. In short, it is high time to digitalise health and patients’ rights.


In the field of healthcare, the EU is relatively powerless. The organisation of healthcare systems is an area of policy where the Member States are still highly autonomous, and the EU’s power to regulate health is limited to coordination or supplementation of Member States’ health policies and laws. At the same time, the EU’s open borders for its market activities do lead to a partially regulated, but the free flow of health services, patients and medicines. While the EU regulates some health products, there’s no uniform patients’ rights instrument. This means that it is more difficult for the EU to mitigate patients’ risks that arise from the digital healthcare transformation. At the same time, the EU must ensure “A high level of human health protection (…) in the definition and implementation of all Union policies and activities” under Article 168 TFEU. Building on this so-called “health mainstreaming”-obligation, in the subsequent paragraphs, we argue that the new Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles indirectly addresses some of the core issues patients face in the digital health environment. In that sense, the Declaration may be useful in the protection of patients in the digital healthcare transition.


On 26 January 2022, the European Commission proposed to the European Parliament and the Council to sign a Declaration of Rights and Principles that will guide the digital transformation in the EU. The Declaration, quoting European Commission President Von der Leyen, “is about who we want to be as Europeans” when it comes to digitalisation. The somehow romantic content of the proposal on digital rights and principles perfectly matches the decision of the European Commission to opt for a non-binding “soft law”—an instrument like a declaration. It should be noted that declarations are not among the legal instruments listed in the EU Treaties1 and are rarely used. By means of a declaration, EU institutions convey their views on a specific issue, clarifying directions and desiderata.

The digital principles included in the Declaration are intended as essential concepts based on common European values and serve as guidance for a human-centred, secure, inclusive, and open digital environment where no one is left behind. Therefore, the Declaration aims to be a reference framework and serve as an interpretative guideline for pre-existing rights and values, reinterpreted in the light of digitalisation. The Commission clarifies that these principles do not affect the rights that already protect people online within the EU, nor do they affect the legitimate limits to the exercise of such legal rights.

In the next section, we propose to read the principles enshrined in the Declaration in light of the healthcare context, given the need for the protection of patients’ rights in a rapidly digitalising medical environment, especially when it comes to medical AI.


The Declaration has a value-based aspiration, putting forward a human-centric approach to guide the EU digital transition. Drawing from EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Declaration aims to be a kind of the first bulwark for rights and values in the digital sphere. This generic nature of principle-based rights allows us to read them through the lens of the right to health and AI. Let us take a health-oriented look at the Declaration.

Starting from Chapter 1, titled “Putting people at the centre of the digital transformation”, the proposal reflects one of the main sentiments characterising the discussion on the introduction of AI in the field of health, namely that the patient should be at the centre of this transformation and should be the first to benefit from it. This starting point is thus in line with fundamental values in health, mainly human dignity. The following chapters detail principles and rights following from the first chapter, which are essential to realising the centrality of the person.

Chapter 2, by focusing on solidarity and inclusion, touches on some of the hottest topics of ongoing reflection in health tech law: how do we make sure digital health helps and not hurts patients—and benefit all patients? Digitalisation should be a way of increasing equality and quality of care when it comes to health, leaving no one behind. This includes ensuring proper internet connection in remote areas that would benefit most from digital health and sufficient digital skills to understand digital health tools. In this spirit, the European Commission commits to including those people who are more likely to be marginalised. In order to reach this goal, the Declaration recognises a sort of “right to be connected” in order to maximise the benefits of digital services, as well as a “right to support and continuous education” for those in need of developing digital skills.

Chapter 3 considers the individual’s freedom of choice. It centres on the statement that transparency is essential in the relational dynamics with AI systems. In this sense, subjects must always be aware of whether they are interacting with an AI or a human being. In the medical sphere, this knowledge is certainly necessary to create a relationship of trust between the patient and doctor, put the patient at the centre of the therapeutic choice, and ensure truly informed consent to medical treatment. While not made explicit in the Declaration, the transparency requirement suggests that the subject (in our case, the patient) is recognised the right to opt for a totally human relationship from which the AI is excluded. These rights correspond to basic patients’ rights, such as the right to informed consent to medical treatment.

While Chapters 4 (online participation) and 6 (sustainability) leave little room for health-oriented reading, Chapter 5 is relevant for health as it deals with safety, security and empowerment principles. It focuses on security by design of the product, creating a sort of parallel with some of the requirements already seen in the AI Act, aimed at protecting digital services from cyber-attacks. Considering the disastrous consequences of a hackable pacemaker for heart patients, one can imagine its importance for health. Even more important is the principle aimed at protecting privacy, declaring the protection of personal data and full control over the secondary use of data a fundamental principle. Medical data protection is also crucial in medical care, as it fosters trust in both the doctor and medical sciences.

Although this analysis of the health-focused declaration is by no means exhaustive, it allows us to draw a preliminary conclusion as to which fundamental principles the EU wants to put at the helm of digitisation policy are also essential in the debate on the digitalisation of health. Human centredness, equity and privacy stand out as leading principles. These principles require an assessment of the accompanying legal framework to see whether the EU can provide adequate protection. For now, what is certain is the inspirational role of the Declaration, which, although not mentioning health explicitly, in fact, sets a clear direction for digital health rights.


In sum, the strength of the Declaration is not its legal robustness—its legal powers and enforceability are limited, both because of its declaring nature and the limited EU health competencies. The power of the Declaration lies in the fact that it gives an authoritative voice to some of the core issues of digitalisation that were already highlighted in the literature but still lacked proper institutional recognition. This shows the EU’s commitment to a digital Europe guided by fundamental rights and values instead of pure economic value. Furthermore, the Declaration translates formerly abstract values into some more tangible rights, which could be used to interpret existing fundamental rights instruments by European courts.

It is true that we cannot call the Declaration a legal revolution for healthcare as it has little direct legal effects on patients. In line with previous EU instruments in the digital field, it does not introduce specific new patients’ rights or provide new angles to the ongoing debate on the safe integration of digital health and AI in society. However, when we analyse the Declaration’s content from a health perspective, we see that it addresses the same issues prevalent in the digital health debate. The Declaration defines a human-centric approach guiding the European digital transition—we urge to broaden this with a health-centric approach. Following the EU’s health mainstreaming obligations, we believe that a health-centric approach to the Declaration could contribute to equipping patients with some much-needed rights in the digital health transformation. The actual effects on patients remain to be seen but adopting a health-focused approach to the Declaration is a welcome step in the digitalisation of healthcare.

This blog was first published on The Digital Constitutionalist.

Please cite as: Hannah van Kolfschooten and Sofia Palmieri, ‘A Health-Oriented Approach to the Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles’ (The Digital Constitutionalist, 25 May 2022). Available at <https://digi-con.org/a-health-oriented-approach-to-the-declaration-on-european-digital-rights-and-principles/>.

EU Regulation of Artificial Intelligence: Challenges for Patients’ Rights

In order to create a well-functioning internal market for Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, the European Commission recently proposed the Artificial Intelligence Act. However, this legislative proposal pays limited attention to the health-specific risks the use of AI poses to patients’ rights. This article outlines that fundamental rights impacts associated with AI such as discrimination, diminished privacy and opaque decision-making are exacerbated in the context of health and may threaten the protection of foundational values and core patients’ rights. However, while the EU is facilitating and promoting the use and availability of AI in the health sector in Europe via the Digital Single Market, it is unclear whether it can provide the concomitant patients’ rights protection. This article theorizes the Europeanization of health AI by exploring legal challenges through a patients’ rights lens in order to determine if the European regulatory approach for AI provides for sufficient protection to patients’ rights.

In 2021, the European Commission proposed the Artificial Intelligence Act. In her recent article for Common Market Law Review, Hannah van Kolfschooten expresses concerns about this legislative proposal with regard to patients’ rights. The aim of the proposed act is to create a well-functioning internal market for Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. However, Van Kolfschooten argues that limited attention is paid to the health-specific risks the use of AI poses to patients’ rights. She states that fundamental rights violations associated with AI are exacerbated in the context of health and may threaten the protection of patients’ rights. While the EU is facilitating and promoting the use and availability of AI in the European health sectors, it remains unclear whether it is simultaneously able to protect patients’ rights against the risks that the use of AI poses.

Please cite as: Hannah Van Kolfschooten, ‘EU regulation of artificial intelligence: Challenges for patients’ rights’, (2022), 59, Common Market Law Review, Issue 1, pp. 81-112.

How the Parliament’s AIDA Report Misdiagnoses the Risks and Benefits of Health AI

In November 2021, the European Parliament’s Special Committee on AI in a Digital Age (AIDA Committee) put forward its draft report on artificial intelligence (AI) in a digital age. The report advocates for a very permissive approach to the regulation of AI to stimulate innovation and foster the competitiveness of the EU. With this, however, it understates the possible risks specific to the development and use of AI in the context of health and lacks actual solutions to translate potential into action. We identified five shortcomings and hereby appeal to the regulator to address them.

Jorge Félix Cardoso, M.D., M.A. is a Parliamentary Assistant at the European Parliament

Hannah van Kolfschooten, LL.M. is a PhD Researcher at Law Centre for Health and Life, University of Amsterdam.

Diogo Nogueira Leite, M.Sc. is a PhD Researcher in Health Data Science at the Center for Health Technology and Services Research, University of Porto.

Tjaša Petročnik is a PhD Researcher at TILT/TILEC, Tilburg University

Henrique Vasconcelos, M.D.

The authors write in their personal capacity.

Health is broader than healthcare

When talking about AI in or for health, we are not only talking about a cancer diagnosis or the personalisation of therapeutics in the clinic; the scope of health provision is expanding from formal healthcare systems into our smart devices, actively involving (pre-)patients and consumers. Think about increasingly AI-driven fitness apps, symptom checkers, disease management tools and so on, which have the potential to widen access to health-enhancing resources by cutting conventional healthcare ‘gatekeepers’ out of the equation.

These tools are, however, in the report seen as mere means to relieve pressure on healthcare systems, even though they might affect the health attitudes and behaviours of users or even result in serious harm if not performing optimally. Additionally, as health data is scarce and desirable, we can expect such consumer-facing AI tools to progressively act as an avenue to obtain such data. Misuse might result in privacy violations, civil rights discrimination based on health records, or health inequality increases. AI regulation should thus take into account that AI-based health practices are also taking place outside formal healthcare settings and properly address this.

Exaggerated benefits of health AI

Without a doubt, AI applications in clinical practice and health research show significant promise. Yet, reading the AIDA report, one may get the impression that AI is widely and successfully used in clinical settings. Although the fight against COVID-19 has indeed accelerated research of new technologies in health, this has (so far) produced few robust, generalisable results. While some AI algorithms may perform with high accuracy on paper, even comparable to human specialists, they might not perform as well in real-world clinical practice. The expectations for AI in health appear inflated as the promised transformative events have for now mostly been confined to lab-controlled environments. Furthermore, the AIDA report seems to falsely equate more diagnoses with improved clinical outcomes. However, that is not always the case – overdiagnosis might even result in more harm than good. Ultimately, implementing AI technologies in health contexts requires accurate algorithms and investments in care infrastructure, professionals, and resources.

Underdiagnosis of the risks for both individuals and society

While the benefits of AI appear over-diagnosed, the AIDA report seems to downplay the risks. It correctly acknowledges some of them, in particular, harms to individuals’ wellbeing due to, for instance, misdiagnosis and related liability issues. But, by focusing on individual risks, the report overlooks broader societal risks and harms of AI. Unlike ‘human’ medical errors, mistakes of AI systems can have a much larger impact: technical system errors in AI could lead to mass patient injuries because of widespread use. Additionally, AI might perform better on sub-populations that are better studied or better represented in the training datasets, reflecting existing societal biases. For example, when AI is used to aid health professionals in diagnosing skin cancers, the system frequently uses freely available image databases that often do not include images of people of colour. As a result, these systems may lead to people of colour’s underdiagnosis. This would not only directly harm the health of individual members of (already) marginalised groups; it could also deepen the (existing) socio-economic inequalities in terms of access to health and health outcomes. It thus seems that the report disregards these societal implications in favour of potential economic benefits.

Patients are not mere data points; they are humans with fundamental rights

The risks of AI in health go well beyond health risks. AI runs on data, but data is not just an input; it is “collected by people, from people and for people”. Data subjects and those affected by AI are human beings with fundamental rights like dignity, non-discrimination and privacy. For instance, the report does not touch upon the black-box nature of many AI systems; a lack of understanding of how AI reaches its conclusion makes it difficult for clinicians to explain and for patients to understand AI’s advice, which can impair existing health practices of information provision and informed consent as an integral part of the right to health. Moreover, those seeking care are in a specific situation of vulnerability due to asymmetry in information and risk aversion. Therefore, the EU’s approach to AI in health should not only ensure health-specific fundamental rights are protected in the design, deployment, and usage of AI in health tools but also to address citizens’ willingness to provide and curate health data and ways to govern it appropriately.

Development of AI in health requires a specific approach

Developing health solutions is different from conventional product development because it touches upon people’s bodies and lives in a way no other industry does. Introducing AI in health amplifies the need for multidisciplinary teams that bring together insights from (bio)medicine, data science, behavioural sciences, and ethics and law. By lacking identification of this heterogeneity, namely through the recognition of the need for sector-specific regulation, the report fails to address the needs of patients, practitioners, and also developers and industry.

The AIDA report should therefore acknowledge the special nature of AI in the context of health and call for the proper regulation of the risks to patients or consumers as affected individuals and society. After all, health is everyone’s concern, and the algorithms have already entered doctor’s offices and our living rooms. Let’s ensure that they are really here to make us healthier.

This blog was first published on Euractiv on 24 January 2022.

The First steps in EU Regulation of Artificial Intelligence: Algorithms and Patients’ Rights

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare is becoming increasingly common. This development holds great promise for the quality and accessibility of healthcare, but is not without risks. On the one hand, AI has its advantages: it facilitates accurate diagnosis of patients and it makes it possible to hold e-consults. On the other hand, it brings along risks for patients’ rights and privacy. Current European regulation insufficiently tackles these risks. The newly proposed Artificial Intelligence Act aims to better regulate AI in healthcare. However, the proposed Act lacks of a human-centric approach: the proposal centres on companies rather than people. Although certainly not perfect, the proposed Act is a step forward toward better regulation of AI in healthcare. Given the ongoing digitalisation of healthcare and rapid developments in AI, it surely will not be the last. In her article, Hannah van Kolfschooten describes the legal developments regarding the use of AI in healthcare and the consequences for patients’ rights from a European perspective.

This article was published in the Tijdschrift voor Gezondheidsrecht in Dutch.

Please cite as Mr. H.B. van Kolfschooten, ‘Eerste stappen in Europese regulering van artificiële intelligentie: algoritmes en patiëntenrechten’, TvGR 2021, p. 381-389.

Conspicuous by its Absence: Health in the European Commission’s Artificial Intelligence Act

Earlier this year, the European Commission published its long awaited legislative proposal on artificial intelligence (AI): the Artificial Intelligence Act. With the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act, the European Commission has taken the first steps towards uniform rules on AI in the EU. The act aims to take a balanced approach to regulating AI, which ensures effective protection of fundamental rights without hindering AI’s socioeconomic benefits. The proposal fails, however, to address the health specific challenges that AI presents. 

AI technology, and particularly its machine learning techniques, can be deployed to predict the best course of action in a specific context because of its capability to recognise patterns in large datasets. AI has been heralded as holding the promise to save billions of lives by improving the quality of healthcare, reducing costs, increasing accessibility of healthcare, and anticipating health emergency threats. However, given the unfathomable “black box” nature of AI, it may also affect fundamental rights, such as the rights to non-discrimination, privacy, and access to justice. 

When AI is deployed in the context of health, patients are exposed to potential specific risks that could lead to physical or psychological harm—for instance, when racial bias in algorithms leads to incorrect diagnoses. The lack of transparency around how algorithms work also makes it difficult to provide patients with the relevant information they need to exercise their patients’ rights, such as informed consent. Plus, the dependence of AI on large amounts of (personal) data may affect medical data protection, because of patients’ limited control over use of their personal data and cyber security vulnerabilities in AI systems. All of this means that care should be taken when AI is applied in clinical or health settings, yet the proposal falls short in realising this caution.

The EU’s AI proposal takes a risk based approach to the regulation of AI: the higher the risk, the stricter the rule. Most of the requirements laid down in the act focus on “high risk” applications and include rules on transparency, accuracy, and data governance. The proposal labels AI systems used in specific areas, such as critical infrastructure, education, and law enforcement, as “high risk.” While the proposal stipulates that all devices falling under the Medical Devices Regulation (MDR) qualify as “high risk,” healthcare is nonetheless conspicuous in its absence from the list of high risk areas.

This is remarkable since healthcare forms one of the most popular sectors for AI deployment in the EU and is an inherently risky market because it deals with matters of the human body and life and death. The commission seems to have assumed that all AI applications used in the context of health are covered by the MDR. This assumption is false: the MDR only covers medical devices and software with an intended medical purpose, such as treatment of patients. This therefore excludes a lot of AI applications used in the realms of health, like many fitness and health apps (for example, apps to track medication) and administrative AI systems used by doctors in a hospital or other healthcare setting. These applications may, however, still present new challenges and possible risks to people, because of their (in)direct effects on the human body or the use of sensitive health data. Mobile pregnancy apps, for example, offer AI powered recommendations that will likely influence the reproductive health of users and process sensitive data on people’s health and life choices, yet they would not fall under the MDR and thus are not considered “high risk” under the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act.

This omission is foremost caused by the lack of a human-centric approach: the proposal centres on companies rather than people. The proposed act ignores the perspective of the “end users” or those affected by AI powered decisions. It mainly sets rules for developers and allows for companies to self-assess their conformity with regulation, yet it does not provide “end users” with the resources to guard themselves against the detrimental effects of AI. This regulatory approach to AI disregards the vulnerability of humans exposed to AI algorithms. This is especially harmful in the health and clinical context, where people are particularly susceptible to the risks of AI because of the inherent dependency and information asymmetries in the patient-doctor relationship. In comparison, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation does empower citizens to control how their personal information is used by granting them extensive rights.

It is true that the EU has limited legal powers to regulate in the area of healthcare, but this does not absolve the EU from its responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of people when it comes to their health. In order to adequately protect people’s rights in the context of health-related AI, the EU must empower those affected by AI systems with effective and enforceable rights. In addition, health and healthcare must be included in the list of “high risk” areas. This is the only way that Europe can fully reap the benefits of AI in health and medical science as a whole.

This blog was first published on BMJ Opinion

Please cite: H.B. van Kolfschooten, ‘Conspicuous by its absence: health in the European Commission’s Artificial Intelligence Act’, BMJ Opinion, 30 July 2021, https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/07/30/conspicuous-by-its-absence-health-in-the-european-commissions-artificial-intelligence-act/.