Opportunities and challenges in e-health technologies

21.8.2014

A specialist workshop held as part of the International Council of Nurses’ advanced practice nursing conference in Helsinki examined the future prospects for applying e-health solutions in advanced nursing and health care, identifying both great opportunities and daunting challenges.

by Fran Weaver

Countries around the world are striving to prepare health care professionals to work with rapidly developing e-health tools including mobile and internet-based technologies. Information management is becoming a key aspect of nursing, while patients today are increasingly connected, e-literate and able to use a wide variety of modern tools.   

“Advanced practice nurses are in many ways in a key position between health care organisations and patients, so e-health and telemedicine solutions can help us a lot,” said workshop facilitator Pirkko Kouri, a nurse trainer and expert in health care technologies from the Savonia University of Applied Sciences, Finland.

Dr Kouri shared a definition of e-health as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration”.

“E-health solutions can particularly help to improve access to health care in countries with ageing populations, by enabling old people to continue living at home. In many countries people who live far away from any well-equipped health care facilities can also benefit,” she explained. In developing countries audio-visual e-health tools may also help patients with poor literacy. 

Instantly available information

Patients may increasingly be able to use a variety of devices to collect data relating to their health parameters themselves, and then send the data through mobile or online channels to their care managers, reducing the need for personal visits. This can be motivating for patients, and save everybody time.

During face-to-face consultations nurses or physicians should not need to spend time staring at their screens searching for old patient data. All patient records should be kept on centralised registers, with health care professionals and patients able to access them easily. The new Finnish e-Archive system for health records aims to meet these needs.

New kinds of services that provide trustworthy professional health care advice through officially accredited helplines or online consultations can also benefit patients, and provide new career opportunities for health care professionals. In several countries online patients’ forums have also been set up to enable patients to share their experiences and gain welcome peer support. 

A wide range of other e-health solutions were spotlighted during the workshop, ranging from portable ultrasound scanners and “lab on a chip” analytical devices that can be used in patients’ homes, to state-of-the-art genome sequence technologies.

Challenges slowing the adoption of e-health innovations

Though the potential for such innovative technologies is clear, it may still take some time before they are exploited to their full potential.

“One key issue is that the sheer amount of health care information available is increasing so quickly. This means we must find effective ways to organise it and make it readily accessible,” said Kouri. “It’s vital to integrate different information systems to make them interoperable.”

“Another serious problem is that technology is progressing faster than the related legal frameworks,” added Kouri. “Privacy and data security issues are particularly important in this context.” The resulting time-lag delays the clear benefits that e-health innovations can bring.

Dr Kouri also highlighted the need for carers and patients to be effectively trained to use advantageous information and communications technologies. It is particularly vital that patient interfaces are designed to be user-friendly, with the needs of elderly and infirm patients especially in mind, to avoid the creation of a “digital divide”.

At the same time professional nurses will need to continuously keep up to date with technological advances that can enhance their work. Training programmes should be updated accordingly.

The International Council of Nurses already has a telenursing network, and it is hoped that an e-health group will soon be established within the Council’s International Nurse Practitioner/Advanced Practice Nursing Network to address these vital and highly topical issues.