Australian report predicts transition from peripheral telemedicine to mainstream e-health

Canberra 06 December 1999The Australian Commonwealth Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DOCITA) recently published the report

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From Telehealth to E-Health: The Unstoppable Rise of E-Health. The author of the document, drawn up by order of the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE), is John Mitchell of John Mitchell & Associates. This report succeeds the 1998 government account Fragmentation to Integration: the Telemedicine Industry in Australia in which a plea is made for the integration of telemedicine into the general health care practice. The new e-health document describes how the increasing combined use of information and telecommunications technologies (IT&T) has expanded the narrow concept of telemedicine as a synonym for videoconferencing towards the encompassing notion of electronic health.

The e-health report naturally focuses on typical Australian ways of health care delivery in urban and rural areas inspired by the geographical conditions of this stately country, divided in States and Territories. As such, the reader is provided with a number of case studies from the field in which even an Antarctic telemedicine initiative is being addressed. Nonetheless, the author's findings on the present evolution in information economy, electronic commerce, information technology, telecommunications, and the Internet are equally valid for the organisation of e-health on a global scale. The concept of e-health is defined by John Mitchell as the use in the health sector of digital data which are transmitted, stored and retrieved electronically, for clinical as well as educational and administrative purposes, both at the local site and at a distance.

The broader spectrum of electronic health allows to incorporate telehealth, a term applied to health care delivery at a distance, and telemedicine into the mainstream of care providing. Instead of remaining an isolated technological curiosity, both disciplines will merge in the fast evolving process of providing the consumer, the patient and the health professional with easy and overall access to computerised health care facilities. As a subset of e-commerce, e-health is based on the principles, applied to electronic business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions with the great difference that health industry practitioners are using IT&T for a far larger variety of purposes than just business or administrative transactions. One of the major objectives of Mitchell's report is to stimulate discussion about the opportunities for health which are raised by the information economy and the concept of e-health.

Next to telecommunications and the Internet, health informatics are playing an important part in the development of e-health. John Mitchell defines this concept as the "scientific discipline dealing with the collection, storage, retrieval, communication and optimal use of health related data, information and knowledge". The health informatics experts rely on the academic methodology and technologies, used in the information sciences for problem solving and decision-making. Although e-health still has an unfamiliar, new sound to the public ear, the report forecasts its unrelenting progress within Australia and elsewhere. In countries like Australia, e-health offers support to general practitioners in distant rural areas.

E-health will yield substantial cost-savings and clinical benefits because of the combined use of information and telecommunications technologies giving birth to optimised and whole new services. In turn, an insatiable eagerness will grow among consumers for on-line health offerings. The growing power of consumerism will simply force the health care sector to take advantage of the digital revolution, as John Mitchell states. From Telehealth to E-Health: The Unstoppable Rise of E-Health is available at the Web site of the Australian National Office for the Information Economy.


Leslie Versweyveld

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