According to Frost & Sullivan, European drug-buying consumers and patients seeking information have been the chief health care-related users of the Internet. About 11,2 percent of European Union Internet users bought health care related products on-line or as a result of information found on-line in 2003.
Trends documented in the Frost & Sullivan report, "Strategic Analysis of the Role of the Internet in Health care Delivery in Europe (2003-2008)", indicate that higher Internet usage for the purpose of providing patient health care is imminent. From growing e-mail use by health care professionals and consumer eCommerce in the drug market to rising electronic procurement by hospitals and Internet diagnosis and eHealth, the use of the Internet in active health care delivery is poised to soar.
At the same time, the Internet's application in passive health care delivery is also expected to climb. By 2008, over 120 million patients in Europe are estimated to be engaged in on-line health care research, close to 150 million in diet and fitness research, with just over 30 million Internet subscribers becoming part of on-line self-help groups. Appointment settings for primary and secondary health care providers is also set for rapid take-off with numbers rising from about five million in 2003 to nearly 50 million in 2008.
Explaining the expanding role of the Internet in health care delivery, Frost & Sullivan Health care Research Analyst Chris Cherrington stated: "Cost saving is emerging as the main driver since the Internet is a public data network that offers low cost data transfer. Increasing public use of the World Wide Web is forcing industry vendors to use Web sites to advertise and spread information about their products and services. At the same time, e-mail has become ubiquitous and is now accepted as a mainstream method of business communication. Another reason for the rapid adoption of the Internet has been that health care giants and pharmaceuticals companies are using eProcurement to streamline operations."
As insurance companies and governments seek to make more efficient use of limited budgets, the Internet is anticipated to gain popularity as a cost saving tool. In 2004, about 95 percent of European Union insurance companies had some form of Internet presence with many employing the Internet as a key channel to conduct transactions with health care providers. From a consumer perspective, the Internet is also expected to emerge as a major source of low-cost insurance.
Tight health care budgets are pushing governments to explore various Internet-based alternatives. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service's (NHS's) simple, self-diagnosis service is the first operational eHealth programme in the European Union. The success of such direct, on-line health initiatives is expected to be replicated by other European Union countries.
The Internet is expected to trigger fundamental change in many areas related to health care provision. For a start, it is likely to prompt greater transparency and accountability in the health care arena. Governments, for instance, are likely to be required to articulate policies and information about patients' rights over the Internet. This, in turn, is anticipated to provide a new platform from which public pressure groups can lobby policy makers.
Among other likely outcomes of expanded Internet usage in health care is that of governments tightening restrictions on the on-line sale of drugs and alternative therapies. Additionally, governments are expected to use the Internet to disburse items such as repeat prescriptions, particularly products such as contraceptive pills used mainly by Internet-savvy young women.
Despite its advantages, however, Internet penetration levels are likely to suffer due to the continuing scepticism of many medical professionals and Europe's ageing population. Also, with most consumers being satisfied with the current health care system, the need to find additional medical data or forsake traditional delivery mechanisms is not a pressing one.
Penetration levels reveal regional disparities as well. Eastern Europe lags in implementing health care delivery through the Internet. However, growing net access in the region and the increasing amounts of data expected to become available in non-English languages is likely to be conducive for expanded Internet use in the health care arena.
"A common standard for electronic patient records throughout Europe; initiatives to introduce electronic booking systems and connect primary health care providers, hospitals and health care payers through an integrated health supply chain; as well as the rapid adoption of the Internet by private medical treatment facilities; are all likely to boost the relevance of the Internet in European health care delivery over the long term", noted Mr. Cherrington.
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