A new World Health Organization report on eHealth offers fascinating insights into the rapid developments in these technologies, and highlights areas where governments need to do more to build public trust and enable the widespread use of these potentially life-saving technologies.
The report analyses electronic health records, telehealth, mobile health (m-Health) and health-related use of e-Learning, social media, health analytics and "Big Data" across the wider European region. The overall message is a positive one. The report highlights how European countries are:
“actively building upon their national foundations for eHealth to deliver public health and health services in a more strategic and integrated manner. They acknowledge and understand the role of eHealth in contributing to the achievement of universal health coverage and have a clear recognition of the need for national policies, strategies and governance to ensure the progress and long-term sustainability of investments.”
Despite the focus and commitment across the European region, with nearly all of the 46 member countries that responded having made public funding available for e-Health programmes, the report identifies important weaknesses. Currently, only six countries have a national policy or strategy regulating the use of Big Data in the health sector, with a major barrier to implementation seen as inadequate data privacy and security laws.
An example of how big data can be harnessed for improved patient care is the use in Oxford of information from large data sets on the monitoring of vital sign, such as heart rate, blood pressure, etc. Early warning score systems are used to identify patient deterioration, with a 10% decrease in cardiac arrests noted in the first year after their introduction. There is huge potential for technology of this kind to drive improvements in care.
Social media are increasingly relied on by patients, professionals and organisations, but worryingly, very few countries have tackled the risks of disseminating health information in this way. While there are many benefits, for example the sharing of information in virtual health communities, there are obvious dangers when patients rely on social media for health advice. More robust policies and education are called for.
Legal issues around eHealth focus on the security of data, permissions for its use, and access and control by individuals. Getting these areas right is vital for building public trust in eHealth technologies, particularly where data is shared with private sector players such as insurers and pharmaceutical companies. There remains work to be done here.
Summing up, WHO Regional Director Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab comments:
“I urge all Member States and relevant partners within the WHO European Region to recognize and act upon the key messages and recommendations presented in this report. We need to ensure the collective, intersectoral engagement of all stakeholders for the future of eHealth and to leverage the strengths of each in implementing the Health 2020 policy in Europe.”