Interview: Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves

When I asked President Ilves how he observes Estonia’s technological, social, and cultural changes from 2006 until now, the first thing he mentioned was the advent of fully digital prescription. Estonia, like nearly every other EU member state, has universal health care. Since 2002, Estonia has issued digital ID cards to all citizens and legal residents. These cards allow access to a “citizen’s portal,” enabling all kinds of government services to exist entirely online: essentially any interaction with the government can be done online, ranging from paying taxes, to voting, to even picking up a prescription.

“In the United States, 5,000 people die a year because of doctor’s bad handwriting,” he said. “It’s very simple. You go to the doctor, and he writes the prescription in the computer, and you go to any pharmacy in the country, and you stick your card in the reader, and you identify yourself, and you get your prescription.”

As he pointed out repeatedly, “the stumbling blocks are not technological,” but rather, are bureaucratic.

I’m pretty sure we have the same digital prescription system here in The Netherlands – it really is as simple as the doctor sending out his prescription to the pharmacy for you, so it’s ready for you right as you pick it up after the doctor’s visit. I have no idea if this system I encounter here in my small, rural hometown is nationwide. In addition, I’d also assume that in the US, not every doctor is still using paper prescriptions – it’s probably a patchwork of digital and paper.

Setting that all aside – I have never heard a head of state speak this eloquently about digital matters, the internet, open source, and similar topics. Looking at my own politicians, who barely know how to hold a smartphone, yet decide on crucial digital matters, this is a huge breath of fresh air. I know too little about the man’s policy positions and history other than what’s being said in this interview, so it might be that Estonians who know him will hold a different view.

Really do watch the video interview.


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