The definition and scope of digital health

Digital health is a rapidly expanding initiative that has seen a number of healthcare organizations acknowledge its potential for patients. When we talk about digital health however, what do we actually mean and what is the scope of these solutions across the healthcare sector?

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Defining digital health

Digital health is becoming increasingly familiar within the healthcare space. Importantly, digital health is featuring in the strategies of healthcare organizations for healthcare services and for patients.1–3 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the term ‘digital health’ refers to “the field of knowledge and practice associated with any aspect of adopting digital technologies to improve health, from inception to operation”.1 This definition was established to refine the definition of digital technologies that are used within the healthcare space. It better captures the broad scope of applications that digital heath may cover and reinforces the concept of digital health acting as a means to an end within healthcare.1

Similarly, PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has recently commented on the scope of digital health stating that “digital health is transforming nearly every aspect of our healthcare system, improving efficiency, expanding access to treatments and technologies, and ushering increased development of personalized medicine”.2 The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) have acknowledged the “new capabilities from technologies, analytical methods and predictive algorithms” that have the potential to enhance patient-centred care delivery and improve efficiency.3

Put simply, the term digital health is now a well-established concept that encompasses the use of digital technologies to enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery, personalize treatment options for patients, improve diagnostic accuracy and in doing so improve outcomes for patients.

Scope of digital technology

When we consider the scope of digital health, it may be helpful to group its applications into 6 core domains; mHealth, clinical decision support system (CDSS), telehealth, health data storage, health informatics and digital therapeutics.4–9

Mobile health, or ‘mHealth’ as it is more commonly known, refers to any medical or public health practice that is supported by the use of mobile devices, including cell phones, patient monitoring devices or wireless technologies that help capture personal data. mHealth aims to enhance connectivity between patients and their healthcare providers care.4

CDSS is the means by which data is analyzed to provide a tool to aid diagnosis and support healthcare professional decision-making.5 Telehealth uses technology to deliver healthcare outside of the traditional healthcare facilities. This may include virtual home-based healthcare and rural diagnosis/referral where healthcare services are scarce.6

Health data storage is the way in which data is stored and managed by healthcare organizations7 while health informatics apply information engineering to a healthcare context to enable the collection, management and use of patient health information.8 Finally, the digital therapeutics domain refers to any health interventions that are driven by software programs to help prevent, manage or treat a particular medical condition or disease.9

Technologies working in combination

Importantly, these digital health solutions do not function in isolation. Consider a wider ecosystem of these technologies: multiple domains may act in conjunction to support patient care. For example, a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate data may be collected using a smart watch device (mHealth). These data may be monitored remotely by the patient’s doctor (telehealth) who uses software to make a diagnosis based on these data (CDSS). This diagnosis may then lead to the delivery of remote treatment (digital therapeutics). Patient data may be stored in a larger database (health data storage) that other researchers can use to train predictive algorithms to identify disease patterns and clusters (health informatics). In a complex, and even chaotic world, the combination of technologies may be the only way to make a real and sustainable difference.

The growing application of digital health

In 2019, it was estimated that digital health represents nearly one-third of all healthcare deals worldwide.10 The total predicted investment in ventures related to digital health was US $8.1 billion in 2018 alone,11 highlighting the growing interest in digital health solutions as a means to improving healthcare for patients.

The scope and applicability of digital health is vast and aims to improve healthcare across a number of areas and disciplines. Naturally, the advent of new technologies in these fields will bring a new set of challenges that must be overcome. Particularly, when we consider data security, development guidelines and setting industry wide standards for testing and roll-out of new technologies. That being said, with an ever-expanding list of areas in which digital health may transform healthcare delivery, the future looks bright for patient care.

Discover more about digital health in our articles on mHealth, remote patient monitoring and wearable tech. Sign up for our monthly update too here.

References

  1. World Health Organization. 2019. Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020–2024. Available at: https://extranet.who.int/dataform/upload/surveys/183439/files/Draft%20Global%20Strategy%20on%20Digital%20Health.pdf [Accessed August 2020].
  2. 2019. Transforming Biopharmaceutical Research and Development Through Digital Health. Available at: https://www.phrma.org/-/media/Project/PhRMA/PhRMA-Org/PhRMA-Org/PDF/PhRMA_Innovation-Day-Two-Pager_V1_2.pdf. [Accessed August 2020].
  3. 2018. Digital Health – Improving Prevention, Prediction and Care A Global, European and German Opportunity. Available at: https://www.efpia.eu/news-events/events/external-event/17012018-digital-health-improving-prevention-prediction-and-care-a-global-european-and-german-opportunity/. [Accessed August 2020].
  4. Collier J. 2018. mHealth: what is it, and how can it help us? Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322865. [Accessed v2020].
  5. Rouse M. Clinical decision support system (CDSS). Available at: https://searchhealthit.techtarget.com/definition/clinical-decision-support-system-CDSS. [Accessed August 2020].
  6. World Health Organization (WHO). Telehealth. Available at: https://www.who.int/sustainable-development/health-sector/strategies/telehealth/en/. [Accessed August 2020].
  7. CDW Healthcare. Healthcare data storage trends. Available at: http://www.cdwcommunit.com/perspectives/expert-perspectives/healthcare-data-storage-trends/. [Accessed August 2020].
  8. NHS Health Education England. E-learning for healthcare. Available at: https://www.e-lfh.org.uk/programmes/health-informatics/. [Accessed August 2020].
  9. Digital Therapeutics Alliance. Industry Overview. Available at: https://dtxalliance.org/dtx-solutions/. [Accessed August 2020].
  10. CB Insights. 2019. Global Healthcare Report Q2 2019. Available at: https://www.cbinsights.com/reports/CB-Insights_Healthcare-Report-Q2-2019.pdf. [Accessed August 2020].
  11. Day, S & Zeig, M. 2019. 2018 Year End Funding Report: Is digital health in a bubble? Available at: https://rockhealth.com/reports/2018-year-end-funding-report-is-digital-health-in-a-bubble/. [Accessed August 2020].

September 2020 RESP-42183

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