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E-health, an opportunity for medical professionals

Health professionals can extend their influence beyond their country’s borders. There is currently a strong demand for online health services from which these providers can benefit. Certification and safety are among the pending challenges.

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Published by ConnectAmericas

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  • 71% of Internet users use the web to search for health-related information
  • Legal uncertainties are the biggest barrier to the growth of online medicine

A few years back, the first thing someone suffering from an illness would do would be to consult with a doctor. Today, before going to a health center, the patient will most likely search his symptoms on the Internet to be more informed and to try to anticipate the type of illness he is suffering from before seeing a specialist.

Websites visited by this patient will probably have information that has been provided by a doctor or by some other type of expert. And, most likely, the service to access this information has been charged or the site obtains revenues from publicity posted on the webpage.  

This is only one example among the enormous amount of opportunities that abound for health professionals since the birth and expansion of the Internet. These technologies used as tools for reaching out to patients are referred to as “e-health”, using a popular prefix to call internet-related practices that had already been applied, for example, in commerce.

According to a team of researchers led by Chantal Blouin, from the National Public Health Institute of Quebec, “Health information is perhaps the area where the greatest availability and content have grown. Individuals today can access a wealth of health and medical information that was previously available only to health care professionals. The past few years have witnessed an explosive growth of the "informatization" of support to health care, especially in the industrially developed countries. There are a growing number of medical information services on the Internet to help both doctors and individuals to answer health questions, supplementing and potentially displacing printed resources. Databases and sites offering general or specific medical or health facts are the main types of e-heath applications in information.”

But e-health goes far beyond this. According to Gunther Eysenbach, editor of Journal of Medical Internet Research, it is “an emerging field in the intersection of medical informatics, public health and business, referring to health services and information delivered or enhanced through the Internet and related technologies.” It is a broad definition that can include from telemedicine to education for healthcare workers involving all commercial and technological practices related with health issues; for example, storing health information. 

A market with strong demand

A study conducted in seven European countries showed that 71% of Internet users have used the web to search for health information. According to the authors, “doctors are likely to find that patients expect them to offer e-health services” and, in fact, upon choosing a new doctor “over one third of respondents affirmed that the provision of e-health services was considered important.”  

Individuals today can access a wealth of health and medical information that was previously available only to health care professionals

According to the research, “the most common way to use the Internet in health matters is to read information, second comes using the Internet to decide whether to see a doctor and to prepare for and follow up on doctor's appointments. Hence, health-related use of the Internet does affect patients' use of other health services, but it would appear to supplement rather than to replace ordinary health services. It is twice as common for users to feel reassured after accessing the Internet for health purposes as it is to experience anxiety.”  

Sector challenges

Given the new nature of this practice, Blouin’s team identifies a series of pending challenges. For example, one of them is in regard to certification: “Which drug controller of which country will certify an online pharmacy, for example? Who will guarantee the prescribing of a certain treatment plan? Who will help distinguish between qualified doctors and "quacks" offering services on the Internet?” Another potential problem may consist of “the need to standardize the ethical norms behind e-health, and to protect the privacy of patients and consumers online.”

In general, the researchers affirm that “legal uncertainties are the biggest barrier to the growth of online medicine. Changes in the legal framework are necessary to recognize the contractual legality of transactions on the Internet, and also to make these acceptable as evidence in a court of law. The major legal issues concern how to protect consumers against illegally dispensed drugs and malpractice in e-health. The concerns are mainly reactions to the emerging examples of dangerous medicine either prescribed or sold online to patients. Negative stories like these could potentially discourage people from using e-health.” 

To address these challenges, a health professional that decides to use the Internet for internationalization purposes can take certain measures vis-à-vis consumers in regard to the reliability of its services. For example, it can publish its domestic license on the Internet and guarantee that all medical opinions will be signed by a professional. It can also partner with prestigious or recognized institutions in the field of medicine or even with government entities.

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Andreassen, Hege K.; Bujnowska-Fedak, Maria M.; Chronaki, Catherine E.; Dumitru, Roxana C.; Pudule, Iveta; Santana, Silvina; Voss, Henning; Wynn, Rolf. European citizens' use of E-health services: a study of seven countries. En BMC Public Health 7, no. 1, 2007. 

Blouin, Chantal; Gobrecht, Jens; Lethbridge, Jane; Singh, Didar; Smith, Richard; Warner, David. Trade In Health Services Under The Four Modes Of Supply: Review Of Current  Trends And Policy Issues. En Blouin, Chantal; Smith, Richard; Drager, Nick, International Trade in Health services and the GATS. Current issues and debates. Washington: The World Bank, 2006.

Eysenbach, Gunther. What is e-health? En Journal of medical Internet research3, no. 2, 2001.

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