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e-health is an emerging field in the intersection of medical informatics, public health and business, referring to health services and information delivered or enhanced through the Internet and related technologies. In a broader sense, the term characterizes not only a technical development, but also a state-of-mind, a way of thinking, an attitude, and a commitment for networked, global thinking, to improve health care locally, regionally, and worldwide by using information and communication technology.
This definition hopefully is broad enough to apply to a dynamic environment such as the Internet and at the same time acknowledges that e-health encompasses more than just “Internet and Medicine”.
As such, the “e” in e-health does not only stand for “electronic,” but implies a number of other “e’s,” which together perhaps best characterize what e-health is all about (or what it should be). Last, but not least, all of these have been (or will be) issues addressed in articles published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
The 10 e’s in “e-health”
Efficiency – one of the promises of e-health is to increase efficiency in health care, thereby decreasing costs. One possible way of decreasing costs would be by avoiding duplicative or unnecessary diagnostic or therapeutic interventions, through enhanced communication possibilities between health care establishments, and through patient involvement.
Enhancing quality of care – increasing efficiency involves not only reducing costs, but at the same time improving quality. E-health may enhance the quality of health care for example by allowing comparisons between different providers, involving consumers as additional power for quality assurance, and directing patient streams to the best quality providers.
Evidence based – e-health interventions should be evidence-based in a sense that their effectiveness and efficiency should not be assumed but proven by rigorous scientific evaluation. Much work still has to be done in this area.
Empowerment of consumers and patients – by making the knowledge bases of medicine and personal electronic records accessible to consumers over the Internet, e-health opens new avenues for patient-centered medicine, and enables evidence-based patient choice.
Encouragement of a new relationship between the patient and health professional, towards a true partnership, where decisions are made in a shared manner.
Education of physicians through online sources (continuing medical education) and consumers (health education, tailored preventive information for consumers)
Enabling information exchange and communication in a standardized way between health care establishments.
Extending the scope of health care beyond its conventional boundaries. This is meant in both a geographical sense as well as in a conceptual sense. e-health enables consumers to easily obtain health services online from global providers. These services can range from simple advice to more complex interventions or products such a pharmaceuticals.
Ethics – e-health involves new forms of patient-physician interaction and poses new challenges and threats to ethical issues such as online professional practice, informed consent, privacy and equity issues.
Equity – to make health care more equitable is one of the promises of e-health, but at the same time there is a considerable threat that e-health may deepen the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”. People, who do not have the money, skills, and access to computers and networks, cannot use computers effectively. As a result, these patient populations (which would actually benefit the most from health information) are those who are the least likely to benefit from advances in information technology, unless political measures ensure equitable access for all. The digital divide currently runs between rural vs. urban populations, rich vs. poor, young vs. old, male vs. female people, and between neglected/rare vs. common diseases.
In addition to these 10 essential e’s, e-health should also be
entertaining (no-one will use something that is boring!) and
– and it should definitely exist!