The continuous evolution of healthcare, fueled by discoveries in medicine, biochemistry, biology, has always been rooted in technological advances. The contribution of genetics to medicine and welfare provide numerous examples: from the complete decoding of the DNA structure in 1953 (check out the history of the discovery of DNA)[1], to the advancement of Sanger sequencing – long the gold standard in genetic testing – to next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology in the late 2000s [2], to the mRNA vaccine that has only recently given us hope for a return to our previous normalcy [3].

Today we are already right in the middle of another technological advancement in healthcare thanks to the internet and electronic communication, which connects us globally with just a click. Entire industries were already transformed and changed our behaviors, such as how we work or consume media. However, digital transformation within healthcare has been slower than in other sectors for a number of reasons. Healthcare administration, which has been paper-based far longer than many other sectors, has long shied away from the transition to more digitization [4]. But with the support of a global medical challenge in recent years, that change has been accelerated, making eHealth a valuable part of healthcare today.

What is eHealth?

eHealth is a wide-ranging term and fundamentally refers to the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in healthcare. Since eHealth covers such a broad spectrum, there are various definitions, showing the two of the most prominent ones in the following:

Definition by the European Commission from the eHealth Action Plan 2012-2020 – Innovative healthcare for the 21st century:

“eHealth is the use of ICT in health products, services and processes combined with organizational change in healthcare systems and new skills to improve citizens’ health, efficiency and productivity in healthcare delivery, and the economic and social value of health. eHealth covers the interaction between patients and health-service providers, institution-to-institution transmission of data, or peer-to-peer communication between patients and/or health professionals [5].”

Definition by the WHO from the 58th World Health Assembly:

“eHealth is the cost-effective and secure use of information and communication technologies in support of the health and health-related fields including healthcare, health surveillance and health education, knowledge and research [6].”

eHealth is being used more and more in Europe. The countries with the highest adoption rates are Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom and show already the use in routine among primary care physicians [7]. Other countries have started so-called eHealth initiatives in the quest of leveraging digital technology further in healthcare. These initiatives, usually initiating change in the macroscopic healthcare field, are primarily supported by every countries’ department of health or the World Health Organization (WHO).

Examples of eHealth are electronic health records (EHR) or telemedicine [8].

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

EHRs are the collection of patient’s health data in a digital format instead of a paper one. This digitization of patient-centered records can be updated in real-time and made available instantly and securely to any authorized recipient. Besides this direct benefit for the patient, as he can share vital information amongst his multiple physicians at any time, electronic health record systems are built to gain further an entire picture of the patient to personalize the care and ultimately improve the success for any treatment [9].

These EHRs usually contain various information such as a patient’s medical history, diagnoses, medications, treatment plans, immunization dates, allergies, radiology images, and laboratory and test results [9].

One of the key features of an EHR is that health information can be created and managed by authorized providers in a digital format capable of being shared with other providers across more than one health care organization. EHRs are built to share information with other health care providers and organizations – such as laboratories, specialists, medical imaging facilities, pharmacies, emergency facilities, and school and workplace clinics – containing information from all clinicians involved in a patient’s care [9].

Telemedicine

Although telemedicine became more relevant over the past 2 years, the term has been already around the 1970s [10]. Literally translated, it means “healing at a distance” (from Greek “tele” and Latin “medicus”) and refers to the use of information and communication technologies to improve patient outcomes by increasing access to care and medical information [10, 11]. This approach has two benefit recipients: patients and healthcare providers.

Patients

    • Lower costs due to less time spent in hospitals (no missed salary) or on their commute (no need for gasoline or train/bus ticket), especially when the appointment with an expert means driving several hundred kilometers [12].
    • Better care access for people with disabilities or people living in sparsely populated areas, where telemedicine can help, for example, to receive a genetic consultation more easily, as genetic experts are usually only located in larger metropolitan areas such as large cities [12].
    • Convenience in receiving care, especially concerning preventive care, where telemedicine makes it easier to keep the appointment because it can be held wherever cell reception is [12].
    • Slowing the spread of infection, with telemedicine, there is no need to go to the physician’s office or the hospital. Individuals do not have to expose themselves to the risk of infection [12].

Healthcare Providers

    • Less overhead expenses and more actual time for care. With fewer patients in the practice, physicians need fewer staff and can schedule appointments longer as no time is spent on formalities, which can be automated and carried out digitally [12].
    • Less exposure to infections [12].

For further information on telemedicine and genetics, check out our previous article The success of telemedicine, transferable to genetics?

Benefits & challenges from eHealth and mHealth

Overall, the adaption of digital technologies in our healthcare system can bring certain benefits to the table as stated before in the examples for EHRs and Telemedicine. Healthcare processes can be digitized, streamlined, and therefore lower costs [13]. Currently, it is estimated that the costs – pre-pandemic – will climb by 2028 to a staggering $6.2 trillion in the US alone [14]. Standardization of the processes, leaving, for example, specific documentation steps to technology will cut time in the process and decrease costs. The support from technology for healthcare professionals will also provide additional control steps in the process of care [15]. Since the society in western countries is aging and therefore directly challenges the health care system, technologies to reduce costs have to be considered [16].

Connected to the benefits are as well newly arising challenges for the implementation of digital technologies into healthcare. One, in particular, is dealing with and connecting the vast amount of sensitive data, resulting in the need to overcome limitations of storage space and the need for interoperability. For example, a genomic dataset generates solely for the raw data multiple Gigabytes for each patient. The need to efficiently compress these data and make them interoperable with other formats and be included, for example, into EHRs is vital for the success of eHealth [17].

At GenomSys, we address these developments head-on. We rightfully want to establish actual personalized medicine through eHealth. Our solutions reflect the need for high-level data privacy, convenience, and high interoperability. All this is combined in our standard for genomic data, which is at the core of GenomSys Variant Analyzer, software for professionals to analyze genetic data, and GenomSys Codec Suite, a tool to transform legacy genomic data formats into the more efficient and future-proof MPEG-G format. We believe that healthcare in the future will be an ecosystem consisting of state-of-the-art tools for professionals and convenient, highly secure applications for citizens to take action when it comes to their health easily.

[1] Watson, J. D., & Crick, F. H. C. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171, 737–738 (1953)
[2] Barba M, Czosnek H, Hadidi A. Historical perspective, development and applications of next-generation sequencing in plant virology. Viruses. 2014;6(1):106-136. Published 2014 Jan 6. doi:10.3390/v6010106
[3] Philip Ball; The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines — and what it means for other diseases (2020) https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03626-1
[4] Zach Binder; How The Healthcare Industry Is Changing Online (2019) https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2019/10/23/how-the-healthcare-industry-is-changing-online/?sh=7a29349d7709
[5] COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS; “eHealth Action Plan 2012-2020 – Innovative healthcare for the 21st century” (2012)
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52012DC0736&from=EN
[6] World Health Organization (WHO); The Fifty-eighth World Health Assembly (2005)
http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/20378/WHA58_28-en.pdf?sequence=1
[7] European Commission; eHealth adoption in primary healthcare in the EU is on the rise (2013)
https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/ehealth-adoption-primary-healthcare-eu-rise
[8] Manfred Klein; Was ist eHealth? (2017)
https://www.egovernment-computing.de/was-ist-ehealth-a-570980/
[9] HealthIT.gov; What is an electronic health record (EHR)? (2019) https://www.healthit.gov/faq/what-electronic-health-record-ehr
[10] World Health Organization (WHO); Telemedicine: opportunities and developments in Member States: report on the second global survey on eHealth (2009) https://www.who.int/goe/publications/goe_telemedicine_2010.pdf
[11] Strehle EM, Shabde N. One hundred years of telemedicine: does this new technology have a place in paediatrics?. Arch Dis Child. 2006;91(12):956-959. doi:10.1136/adc.2006.099622
[12] Zawn Villines; Telemedicine benefits: For patients and professionals (2020) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/telemedicine-benefits
[13] Michael Reddy; Digital Transformation in Healthcare in 2021: 7 Key Trends (2021)
https://www.digitalauthority.me/resources/state-of-digital-transformation-healthcare/
[14] Jesse Ambrosina; The evolution of healthcare and technology in the ‘hospital of tomorrow’ (2020)
https://medcitynews.com/2020/08/the-evolution-of-healthcare-and-technology-in-the-hospital-of-tomorrow/?rf=1
[15] Ehteshami A, Rezaei P, Tavakoli N, Kasaei M. The role of health information technology in reducing preventable medical errors and improving patient safety. Int J Health Syst Disaster Manage [serial online] 2013 [cited 2021 Aug 5];1:195-9. Available from: https://www.ijhsdm.org/text.asp?2013/1/4/195/130378
[16] de Meijer C, Wouterse B, Polder J, Koopmanschap M. The effect of population aging on health expenditure growth: a critical review. Eur J Ageing. 2013;10(4):353-361. Published 2013 May 15. doi:10.1007/s10433-013-0280-x
[17] Siddhartha; The data storage challenges of the healthcare industry (2020)
https://www.sdglobaltech.com/blog/the-data-storage-challenges-of-the-healthcare-industry

By Lucas Laner

Picture: StockSnap / pixabay

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