10 min readHealthcare and Emerging Rich Web Technologies – The WEB 2.0/Semantic Web Challenge and Opportunity

Over the years, healthcare organizations have had to respond to many different changes – from advances in diagnostic and therapeutic procedures to the emergence of concepts such as managed care and telemedicine. Healthcare is fast becoming one of the most competitive and value added industries worldwide with many technology driven developments in diagnosis, treatment, care provision, patient monitoring and healthcare infrastructure.

One such technology is the Internet. The Internet has transformed various other industries by enabling the widespread sharing of information and allowing the creation of new business relationships. Public information increases on web sites, and consumers use the Internet to find information, communicate with friends and family, plan trips, and shop. It is expected that both the scope of applications and the number of Internet users will continue to grow as technologies improve and new online applications continue to emerge.

In healthcare, the Internet – with its powerful penetration and scalability – has the ability to empower patients, support information exchange, and consequently result in new operational strategies, business and care delivery models. To date, the use of the Internet in healthcare has been limited to e-commerce and e-mail communication between doctors. The Internet’s potential, however, is increasingly being harnessed to transform healthcare delivery at the patient level. From growing email use by patients and consumer e-commerce in the drug market, to rising electronic procurement by hospitals, Internet diagnosis and eHealth, the use of the Internet in active healthcare delivery is rapidly gaining ground. Patients create online support communities, search for medical information, and share their experiences, while health care professionals get access to the latest information in their field, consult with their colleagues, and communicate with their patients. Indicative of the impact of Internet in healthcare is the fact that almost every healthcare business – from insurers to hospitals to pharmaceutical companies – has a dedicated Web site.

With the emergence of next generation rich web technologies, such as WEB 2.0 and Semantic web, the creation of a more dynamic and responsive online experience is within reach. This will, in turn, have an effect on how the web is used within the greater healthcare domain, presenting both new challenges and new opportunities.

Internet Penetration
There are currently more than 1.1 billion Internet users worldwide, following a usage growth of more than 200 per cent between 2000 and 2006. Almost a quarter of those users come from the EU-27 countries. With penetration levels high and steadily increasing, the Internet has become a major resource for many industries – from retail, and banking to tourism and manufacturing – and seems set to revolutionize healthcare. Healthcare is the second-most searched topic on the web. Surveys consistently show that 80 per cent of Internet users have used it to obtain online health information.

According to a 2006 survey by the European Commission, 98.0 per cent of the hospitals in Europe reported having Internet access. Among them, 78.0 per cent of hospitals claimed that their Internet access is broadband, while 41.0 per cent of hospital personnel had access to the Internet. Also, 34.0 per cent of the hospitals offered the opportunity of remote access to the hospital’s computer network. These indicators provide valuable insight into the penetration of Internet technologies in European healthcare services. Broadband is important to ensure adequate speed of Internet use, and remote access to the hospital’s computer network is important for access to patient data from outside the hospital’s premises. Finally, the share of employees that are granted Internet access indicates the level of importance hospitals attribute to Internet use in everyday work.

What is driving this?
Compounded by the information overload that characterizes modern medicine, an experienced clinician needs close to 2 million pieces of information to practice medicine. Doctors subscribe to an average of 7 scientific journals, representing over 2500 new articles each year, making it literally impossible to keep fully up-to-date with the latest information about diagnosis, prognosis, therapy and related health issues. Furthermore, the interpretation of patient data is difficult and complicated, mainly because the required expert knowledge in each of many different medical fields is enormous and the information available for the individual patient is multi-disciplinary, imprecise and very often incomplete. As a result, there is an urgent need for tools that can aggregate information from multiple sources to improve health care decision making, enhance health management, and produce better patient outcomes. This is one of the main drivers for the use of the Internet in healthcare.

A growing number of patients are also becoming increasingly involved in the healthcare they receive. These ‘power patients’ are another important factor in driving the use of Internet in healthcare. ‘Power patients’ are a growing share of the population and healthcare organisations will have to meet the needs of such patients. Free choice of doctors, control over treatments they receive, access to quality information about their care and extremely high levels of customer service are some of the expectations of ‘power patients’.

These factors, amongst many others, are strongly driving the use of the Internet in the delivery and administration of healthcare services.

What is holding us back?
On the other hand, limitations do exist. A number of factors are slowing down the adoption of Web technologies, especially compared with other industries.

The main reason is that the care process is fundamentally more complex than in other industries like retail, manufacturing and financial services. Those can use the Internet to improve efficiency and by extension consolidate and modernize their marketplaces. Healthcare’s complexity, fragmentation and financial and regulatory disincentives, however, prevent it from becoming modelled after eBay or Amazon, for example.

The Internet may empower patients in new ways, but it does not replace face-to-face talks with physicians. It may extend the reach of physicians but it does not eliminate the need for office visits.

Using the Internet to exchange health information also raises serious security concerns. While various technologies and procedures are being developed to tackle these security problems, security breaches do not require just technical solutions, but also laws, detection of violations, enforcement and punishment. Despite recent activity at the EU level, many health organisations agree that security concerns prevent them from using the Internet to transfer medical records within organisations or from allowing providers to access such records remotely.

Healthcare IT

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