The Future of Global eHealth

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Access to affordable, effective health care continues to be a major concern for people around the world. But governments that adopt eHealth policies can find ways to use communication and technology advancements to help ensure more people receive better health care. Here, we look at government strides in adopting eHealth, the barriers to maximizing eHealth’s full potential, and what some countries have learned along the way.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the University of Illinois at Chicago Health Informatics and Health Information Management program. 

Infograph on the future of global eHealthcare

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What is eHealth?

Electronic health, or eHealth, represents information and communication technologies used by the health sector. These include electronic patient records, remote patient medical care through telemonitoring, and connecting with health practitioners over the phone through telehealth.

How did it Start? The Internet

There are concerns about the quality of health info patients can access, yet doctors are now realizing the Internet can assist them with their jobs. Patients’ access to internet searches increased their information, which changed their relationship with doctors and created a shift in the patient-provider dynamic.

How Widespread is eHealth?

A 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) survey revealed 160 WHO member countries have some form of universal health coverage, and 74% of these countries mention eHealth as a component. 153 countries have legislation protecting a person’s privacy data relating to their electronic health record, and 134 countries have a national eHealth strategy or policy.

The survey also found that nearly 80% of health care organizations in WHO member states use social media to distribute their health messages. Additionally, the survey pinpointed telepsychiatry as the telehealth service that increased the most between 2009 and 2015.

How eHealth Can Help

Health care systems the world over are facing rising costs, system inefficiencies, access issues, and quality issues. However, these pressures are some of the issues eHealth initiatives aim to solve.

These initiatives strive for this goal through many ways. Digitizing personal health information helps build more complete histories. The creation of electronic health records can also make it easy to share patient data between systems. eHealth can also empower patients with their own electronic records and can also be used to implement various telehealth and home health options to improve chronic disease management.

The process of adopting eHealth initiatives is not without its core challenges. These include insufficient communication of eHealth goals, concerns regarding system standardization, and a current lack of governance and funding.

WHO has also tied the implementation of eHealth to a goal of achieving universal health coverage in remote and underserved communities. However, this takes a lot of work.

Some of the Challenges Facing Specific Types of eHealth

Telehealth

Telehealth uses information and communication technologies to provide advice and reminders, handle remote admissions, and remotely monitor patients directly and remotely. It allows specialists to see more patients, and it makes it easier for remote patients to get services. It can also help cut costs linked to hospital visits and can lower the number of patients that need emergency transfers.

There are several challenges to implementing telehealth. These include insufficient system development funding, inadequate equipment and internet-related infrastructure, a lack of synchronicity between health system priorities, and a lack of regulatory guidance.

eLearning Programs

These health care training models are conducted online. This helps circumvent potential shortages in necessary instructors, bridges skills gaps amongst some workforces, and makes it possible for isolated care providers to receive needed training.

However, there’s a hesitancy to move to less conventional teaching methods, as well as concerns around the existence of suitable eLearning programs. There are also challenges stemming from an HR and funding perspective.

Mobile Health

This concept utilizes mobile phones, personal digital assistants, and other wireless devices for public health services. It doesn’t require much infrastructure, and it’s cheaper than in-person services. Plus, several low- to middle-income countries still have high cellphone subscriptions.

The challenges facing this concept include the cost and functionality of different plan types, as well as insufficient network infrastructure in some places. There are also questions concerning some patients’ digital literacy and the relevancy of the health content. The concept itself is also not always accepted culturally or socially.

The Need

Ultimately, the key to overcoming these challenges is to treat eHealth as a key part of health planning, and not just as an add-on. After all, a trained workforce proficient in eHealth systems can provide proper leadership and oversight to others.

How eHealth is Being Used Globally

While there are several challenges to eHealth program implementation, that’s not stopping countries and regions from investing in the concept. The U.S. has contributed the most, followed by the EU, Canada, Japan, and Latin America.

One of the biggest ways eHealth is being used is text messaging. For instance, the Stockholm-based blood donation service Blodcentralen uses texts to retain and build its donor pool. They also send out “thank you” texts every time donated blood is used in patient treatment, something that helps people to continue donating.

How Some Countries Facilitated the Spread of eHealth

England contributed £6 billion to eHealth over a 10-year period with an emphasis on regional deployment. The investment yielded positive dividends relating to data sharing and data entry protocols. However, they realized that clinical implementation and regional-centric adoption is tricky. They also learned sharing health records is ineffective.

Canada created a federally funded organization to establish an eHealth blueprint that allowed for regional governance, the establishment of standards, and a focus on electronic health records, telehealth, public health surveillance, and various health systems. The program helped them focus on funding eHealth-related projects, initiatives, and models. Their approached also revealed insufficiencies with record integration, program standardization, and underfunding.

The U.S. contributed $30 billion for a host of eHealth-type programs and provided financial incentives for providers who used IT in a “meaningful” way. This program helped to establish Funding Regional Extension Centers to implement this meaningfulness, and it allowed them to acknowledge the need for training, education, and communication to properly adopt eHealth initiatives. Along the way, they learned lessons regarding system connectivity and post-funding support – lessons that can also be learned from observing other countries’ successes and failures.

Ultimately, as more countries look to eHealth to provide better healthcare, we’re getting a better sense of what does and doesn’t work. What’s clear is that the health sector has plenty to gain from relying on information and communication technology advancements. Early success stories show that comprehensive strategies, good education and training, and careful program monitoring to see what works and what doesn’t are critical to making the most of what technology can offer.