Good question! This article provides a brief helicopter-overview of eHealth, its different application areas, the advantages and the future challenges.
Recently I discovered an uncommon spot on the skin of my lower left leg. Curious and even a bit anxious, I started looking on the world wide web for possible explanations. Within a few minutes, I already lost myself in a maze of different diagnoses and possible life-threatening situations. The idea of going through all the hassle of making an appointment and traveling to my general practitioner, only to hear that it would disappear in a few days, didn’t so much appeal to me. It was then that I remembered my general practitioner provides the possibility for an e-consult. I went ahead and within a few minutes I had typed out my situation and even attached a picture of the curious spot. A few hours later, I received a reply from my general practitioner: “Keep monitoring for a few days and make an appointment when the situation isn’t improving”. My relief was twofold: I could safely relax and I saved a lot of time and energy.
This e-consult is one example of the many applications of nowadays that fall under the term: eHealth. The term eHealth is commonly used to describe everything related to digital devices and electronic communication to improve healthcare. It covers, amongst others: Tele-communication, Electronic health records, Big data, Wearables, Health games and Artificial intelligence. Besides technological development, it is also frequently characterized as a state-of-mind, a way of thinking, an attitude and a commitment for networked, global thinking to improve healthcare (Eysenbach, 2001). Because of this broad definition, there has been some vagueness about eHealth and what it entails. The short overview provided in this article aims at providing a helicopter-view of eHealth, what it comprises of and why it is important to be aware of it.
Within recent years, internet and communication technologies have been developing like never before and their potential and availability are abundant. Sectors like healthcare are being exposed to a tidal wave of software packages, technological devices and smartphone applications. Consequently, we see that eHealth finds its way into many different corners of our current healthcare system. Recently, Shaw et al. (2017) have developed a model that helps us to understand the spread of eHealth applications, by categorizing them into three different domains.
Health in our hands
This domain covers eHealth applications that revolve around the collection and accessibility of personal health information. State-of-the-art sensors combined with user-friendly interfaces make it possible to conveniently map out almost every aspect of your health. Think for example of smartwatches, medication trackers and even glucose-monitoring devices. The possibilities are endless and they allow us to take control of our health like never before.
Data enabling health
The eHealth applications in this domain aim to provide new and expanded forms of knowledge to improve the quality of care. Examples are big-data applications such as electronic health records and databases of routine clinical data. The collection, management, analysis and application of these data sources helps us to optimize treatments and healthcare services.
Interacting for health
Tele-consultation, -coaching and -monitoring all form example applications eHealth to improve communication. Think for example of the skin-related e-consult. Other examples are: Online patient environments, Connected medication adherence devices and Tele-supervision of rehabilitation exercises performed at home.
The rise of eHealth and its embedding in the different corners of the healthcare system isn’t that surprising. The advantages of eHealth and the opportunities to bring aid to the expanding pressure on the present healthcare system are extensive.
The rising prevalence of chronic diseases leads to both financial and organizational burdens in today’s healthcare systems (Picco et al., 2016). eHealth can be utilized to improve the efficiency of processes within the healthcare systems and thereby decreasing some of the burdens. For example, by exchanging cost-intensive physical appointments with online e-consults and by reducing overhead costs such as administrative paperwork and travel costs.
Quality of care
Connected medical devices, such as blood-pressure monitors enhance the communication of valuable information from patients to their healthcare providers. The information helps to create a clear picture of the patient’s situation, thereby providing more effective treatment and reducing the number of errors. In addition, hospital process data could be used to optimize healthcare services to reduce waiting times and increase patient satisfaction.
One of the major healthcare challenges of today is to cope with the ever-increasing number of chronic diseases. Healthcare systems are not yet adapted as they are mostly focused on the reactive treatment of acute diseases (Kalra et al., 2014). One possible way forward would be to empower patients to self-manage their disease and to act as leaders of their own health. eHealth could play a major role in this by providing easy access to health services and own health data, thereby placing the patient in the center of their own journey towards better health.
Nevertheless, for eHealth to become successfully implemented into everyday healthcare processes, we need to be aware of and find solutions to cope with the risks and challenges attached to eHealth.
Although eHealth has the potential to increase the efficiency of processes and thereby reducing costs in the long term, a major challenge is still the high initial costs to acquire and implement such as system. Think for example of the financial investment, but also the additional workload needed to train personnel on how to use the system. On top of that, often an entirely new infrastructure needs to be installed to support and sustain the eHealth system.
Dehumanization and data privacy
Health is personal and not only does it require an individually tailored engagement of the healthcare provider, it also asks for careful management of sensitive personal data. The automatization of healthcare processes has a risk of dehumanizing healthcare services and violation of personal health data.
Ensuring the technology is easy to use and understand by its users is essential for success. Nevertheless, applications are often designed with minimal involvement of the end-user and fail to inclusively address the needs of different user types. Not only could this misalignment result in suboptimal effectiveness of the eHealth application, it could also even worsen patient outcomes. Patients could become demotivated and as a result, fail to adhere to or even disengage the treatment.
In this article, we briefly touched upon eHealth, its definition, applications, benefits and drawbacks. As might have become clear, eHealth is an extensive topic and addressing every aspect extends the scope of this article. Nevertheless, you might have learned that eHealth can bring the necessary change and serve as a solution to struggles we are facing in present-day healthcare systems. Although we still have a long way in front of us to ensure seamless integration, eHealth is a hot topic on the agenda. A growing body of researchers, designers and developers are working hard to ensure eHealth will become an indispensable part of future healthcare.