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What is eHealth?

If you’re somewhat confused over the practice of eHealth – its definition, role and impact –rest assured that you’re not alone.

There is no one-size-fits all definition for the term. Back in 2005, in fact, one study cited 51 distinct definitions. That’s surely expanded along with our sophistication in technology, informatics and health matters in the years since.

For all the variations, however, it’s understood that eHealth is where medicine/healthcare and information technology converge. Through it, technology serves as an enabling tool for health-related processes, functions and services and, importantly, it plays a key role in supporting and advancing human capabilities, not replacing them.

Forms of eHealth include:

  • Health informatics, or solutions to better communicate and manage patient data
  • Telemedicine, which facilitates remote diagnoses and treatments and includes patient telemonitoring
  • Electronic health records, or the more effective communication of patient data among healthcare professionals
  • Clinical decision support systems, which give healthcare professionals easier electronic access to protocols and standards to assist in their diagnoses and treatments
  • Consumer health informatics, or electronic resources on health and medical topics geared to individuals

As eHealth evolves, it is reshaping many aspects of medicine. For example, patients who use consumer health informatics tend to be better educated about their treatment. One survey by Harris Online suggested that individuals who tapped into online resources for health information asked their physicians better questions about their care, and tended to comply with prescribed treatment plans.

Also, new e-devices are facilitating more effective patient self-monitoring. This has the potential to create better health outcomes and lower health costs.

One device, for example, enables diabetics to monitor their blood glucose level and upload its readings to a healthcare professional. An e-shirt can transmit the wearer’s heart and respiratory rates over the internet. A tiny camera, swallowed, can transmit a close-up view of a patient’s digestive tract.

The kinks to eHealth still are being worked out, though. Physicians don’t necessarily love it when they see their inboxes overflowing with emails from patients. Plus, e-savvy patients can eat up office visits discussing their findings from web searches on health matters — much of which is unreliable to begin with. Moreover, there are technology access gaps that may keep certain populations — seniors, minorities and lower income patients — from enjoying the benefits.

Over time, such issues will be addressed and eHealth concepts will continue to expand as initiatives to increase their potential take hold. Programs designed to meet those challenges have been developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the eHealth Initiative (eHI):

  • WHO’s eHealth unit is working with partners around the globe to promote the advancement of information and communication technology in health development. Among its programs is the Health Academy, which utilizes eLearning to promote knowledge about good health among children ages 12-18. Another effort is its push for adoption of global eHealth standards, necessary for the development of healthcare information systems that are interoperable and that enable the effective, consistent and accurate exchange of data.
  • The CMS eHealth initiative incorporates several programs that align health information technology and electronic standards. The Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Record Incentive Programs, for example, were created under the 2009 HITECH Act to encourage the electronic capture of clinical data, facilitate the exchange of information among relevant health agencies, and to use health IT to facilitate continuous quality improvement in care. Also covered under the initiative are quality measurement programs for physicians and hospitals.
  • An organization made up of healthcare stakeholders, eHI is dedicated to improving healthcare through more effective use of technology and information. It convenes advisory boards, executive councils and other leadership groups to undertake activities in support of its 2020 Roadmap toward transformed care. With a focus on interoperability, data access and use, data analytics and business and clinical motivators, eHI’s groups develop principles and policy recommendations, and lead research in support of its goals.

However you define it, eHealth means change. It’s transforming and advancing healthcare as we know it — and everyone will ultimately benefit.

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