Socioeconomic and Development Constraints
Technology distribution and access problems represent the most acute issue in the dissemination of ICT applications. In a more limited focus, the "digital divide" encapsulates the dramatic worldwide variation in access to computer-based information technologies, usually more narrowly in terms of levels of Internet access, available to individuals and communities. Information-technology utilization inequalities are found in both industrialized and developing countries and are determined by level of education and income ().
Figure 2 Use of digital technologies by social class in Brazil. Categorization of social classes according to the classification adopted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), similar to the quintile categorization for incomes where A corresponds (more ...)
Digital divides, like social and economic divides, exist within and not just between societies and are integral parts of a much broader and intractable "development divide" that include insufficient telecommunications infrastructure, high telecommunications tariffs, inappropriate or weak policies, organizational inefficiency, lack of locally-created content, and uneven ability to derive economic and social benefits from information-intensive activities [16
]. The situation of technology adoption within developing countries has been one of growing polarization, with segments of the population bypassed by the products of the information revolution. This is complicated by the fast-changing deployment of new technologies and accompanying standards that are constantly raising the level of advancement that must be met by anyone who wants to remain current [19
Technology Infrastructure, Market Determinants, and Operational Issues
In the health sector, development and digital divides between industrialized and Latin American countries are wider than the gap observed in other productive and social sectors. In some cases, the changes brought about by the privatization of health care did add to the already high degree of structural inequity that prevails in the countries of the region. Besides achieving reliable transaction delivery, a technologically successful "e-Architecture" must provide superior client service, customization of products and services, interactivity, and maximum convenience [21
The deployment and operation of "e-Solutions" share technology-infrastructure and operational-deployment issues involving reliability of service that directly depend on: (a) degree of information preparedness and information technology insertion in society; (b) appropriate and functioning network, hardware and software platforms, and physical infrastructure; (c) the understanding of market relationships among the different actors in the informatics and telecommunications areas; (d) managing knowledge about health, individual client medical history, environment, and enterprises; (e) data-protection measures and regulatory framework to ensure transaction security; and (f) auditing processes that are quite different from traditional paper-trail solutions. A pervasive public-sector information infrastructure ("infostructure"), the essential prerequisite for continuous health care to the community, is still an incipient component of health systems. Penetration of information systems in health institutions is low. The hospital subsector is the area better served by information systems. summarizes the distribution of computerized systems in hospitals.
Legal ownership of 16566 hospitals and computerize dinformation systems in Latin America and the Caribbean; 1995 to 1997*
Considering all facilities, public hospitals, including those belonging to the social security, account for 44.51%; private total 46.98%; philanthropic total 7.75%; and military the remaining 0.75%. There are significant differences in the utilization of computerized information systems. The relative distribution of information systems shows that social-security hospital facilities constitute only 5.29% of all establishments, but 50% have computerized information systems, followed by philanthropic (39.3%), private (36.7%), military (23.2%), and public non-social security (21.5%). However, in the group of all hospitals with computerized systems, private hospitals represent the majority (54.7%). The disparity between the existence of systems in the two types of public hospitals (public social security and public non-social security) is evident.
Facility size is a major determinant in the capability of an institution to implement ICT and in the selection of the portfolio of applications. Of all Latin American and Caribbean hospitals, 10027 (60.53%) have 50 or fewer beds () and of those, 5621 (56%) are private, 3806 (37.95%) are public, 529 (5.27%) are philanthropic, and 71 (0.7%) are military.
Hospital size in Latin America and the Caribbean by number of beds; 1996-1997*
In the past decade, the information technology sector in Latin America and the Caribbean consistently showed a growth of 17%, above all other world regions. During the last 5 years there has been fast expansion of the telecommunications market (from 7 million fixed-line and 50 million mobile subscribers in 1995 to 25.3 million and 69 million subscribers respectively in the year 2000) and very fast diffusion of the Internet (in 3 countries alone - Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina - the total number of registered geographic domain hosts grew from 326000 in July 1998 to 660000 in July 1999). Investments in ICT as percentage of the GDP is comparable to that of developed countries although the absolute value per capita is low (). Data used in the preparation of come from sources that in one case use GNP (Gross National Product) and in the other case use GDP. GNP is the broadest measure of national income and measures total value added from domestic and foreign sources claimed by residents. GNP comprises GDP plus net receipts or primary income from nonresident sources
Expenditures on information and communication technologies in selected countries*
Low penetration of telephony, averaging 12% in the region and cost of annual subscription (averaging 3% to 4% of the GNP per capita, but in some countries as high as 19.6%), and very low ownership of personal computers (2 to 10 for each 100 persons, average 3%), and low Internet connectivity (average 3%) are major challenges to be overcome (). About 2 out of 3 public ICT projects are deemed to be failures - they take a long time to implement, cost more than planned, and deliver less than planned. Most of the problems are related to the process of bidding, selection, and contracting.
Technological preparedness in selected countries of Latin America and the Caribbean*
Poor telecommunications infrastructure, limited number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), lack of access to international bandwidth, and lack of affordable Internet-access costs are readiness issues that continue to be major impediments to diffusion of Internet applications to the point of care in developing societies. Dependable connectivity is needed for reliable transactions. Fast connectivity is still limited and is usually by dial-up access. A study across different industries showed that only about one-third of the connected organizations in the region had access with speed higher than 56 Kbps (Kilobits per second) ().
Connectivity speed in selected countries
The access-site problem can be further illustrated by the result of a 1999 survey of 42744 physicians in Brazil (done by a pharmaceutical company in Brazil). The study revealed that 52% used the Internet - a level of diffusion equivalent to the general US population - however, when 23603 physicians users were asked from where they predominantly accessed the Internet, 85% indicated their home, 10% the office, and only 2% and 3% indicated the site as the university or the hospital respectively. In comparison, US physicians have the following Web access profile: 40% at the workplace, 56% at the office, 87% at home, and only 7% were not connected.
On a positive note, reform of the telecommunications sector is bringing significant improvement in services and drop in tariffs as a result of greater competition and expanding markets. With the recent rapid trade liberalization and modernization of the telecommunications sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, the telecommunications infrastructure is improving. One-fourth of the 89 major public telephone operators that were privatized throughout the world by the end of 1999 were in Latin America and the Caribbean [17
Impact in the Society and in Health Practice
Many market segments are becoming increasingly information-technology dependent as part of globalization [7
]. Areas of concern in the introduction of electronic marketplaces, particularly in developing countries, are related to the difficulties in regulating offshore business, the dominance of the Internet global-communications infrastructure by a few countries, and growing concentration of power and knowledge in few corporations.
As is usually the case with innovation, the agents that first move into the market quickly attain a dominant position, block the entry of new competitors, and capture a large part of potential proceeds. It has been stated that the success of developed countries, particularly the United States, in taking advantage of ICT partly reflects its flexible and competitive markets. Possibly, smaller benefits can be expected in more-regulated economies or in the case of implementation environments characterized by rigid labor and trade rules and by inefficient commodity markets and capital exchanges [25
Cross-border challenges are particularly pressing due to the growing number of national, international, and nongovernmental actors involved in transnational and global concerns. Market capture by strong, organized, and well-funded health-provider organizations, some of international nature, is happening at a fast pace in Latin America and regulatory methods have been advocated to safeguard local competition. Intangible health "e-Solutions" products and services offered by foreign providers - as is the case with investment, insurance, knowledge dissemination, and health care applications - present great challenges to developing and poorly-developed countries and may result in flight of capital, tax evasion, employment reduction, capture of the health market, and "cultural colonization."
In the area of information technology, the emphasis of intellectual rights has changed from the protection of the author/inventor to that of the investor. Implications for developing countries [26
], welfare effects, foreign direct investments, transfer of technology, and impact on domestic markets are difficult to foresee particularly in relation to foreign direct investments and technology transfer. Even countries with significant technology exports show negative net balance of royalties and license fees ().
Technology exports, royalties, and licenses payments for the year 2000*
Intellectual property rights have been a major area of concern and conflict. The promotion of innovation is essential to any development strategy, particularly to increase international competitiveness of national enterprises. However, limiting acquisition of innovative technology only to those that are captured by the patent system ("inventions") makes a society permanently dependent on external sources. The universalization of standards for protection of intellectual-property rights has been enabled by the World Trade Organization General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) adopted in 1995 at the Uruguay Round of negotiations, reinforcing protection in 3 key information technology areas: computer programs, databases, and design of the layout of integrated circuits. Stakeholders concerned with such issues include nation-states; multinational business organizations; subregional trade blocks, and integration groups (formal trade blocks such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], Mercosur, and the European Union Common Market, as well as other regional integration initiatives such as Andean Countries and CARICOM [Caribbean Common Market]). In addition, country initiatives, professional and nongovernmental groups, and international organizations provide an operational and legal framework for tackling these issues. Some of these entities are being increasingly overwhelmed by market access challenges not envisioned before the diffusion of ICT.
Skilled and Committed Human Resources are Essential
People are central in the value-added creation of eHealth products and services and an organization's human resource is the key to success [3
]. Systems professionals, technology products and services providers, and project teams must also have superior skill levels and experience in the particularities of the area being automated. Regarding the number of technicians, scientists, and portion of the GNP devoted to research and development, the region is marginally better than other underdeveloped areas (). Employees' skills are the most-expensive and least-elastic resource and an obstacle to technological development in the region. The most-successful efforts to incorporate information and communication technologies in Latin America and the Caribbean have occurred in countries with strong and efficient government and academic institutions committed to invest in education, scientific and technological development, and public services, in tandem with business sectors (for instance, banking and retail commerce) ready and willing to automate their operations.
The research and educational divide: selected technology inputs by region (1992-1997)*
Public Health Authorities Frequently Have a Misguided Vision of ICT
Many public health organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean are not taking advantage of existing ICT opportunities and most existing information systems are inadequate to meeting the requirements of the new models of health care being deployed in the context of health-reform initiatives. Besides the common perception among physicians that health-information systems are mostly a source for scientific and technical information, often public health authorities have a view of clinical-administrative information systems that is obsolete and frozen in a "statistical-epidemiological" archetype, designed for the collection of numerical data representing only counts of events and mostly generating only highly-aggregated statistical data and time series related to mortality, morbidity, and to service utilization and coverage. Those information systems have very little practical interest to direct-care professionals and unit managers and are far behind in providing the logistical and longitudinal individual client-based data required to operate and manage the sort of health care models being deployed in many countries.
Worse still, most public health authorities are totally oblivious to the broad variety of possibilities offered by modern information and communication technologies to manage client-based data, support operations, and mine large databases. Indeed, the health sector has not applied the range of options provided by information and telecommunication technologies as effectively as have other social sectors, and health has been conspicuously underrepresented in national technology-development policies and plans. Such concerns have also been raised by traditional national statistics organizations [27
As a counterpoint to the passiveness of the public sector, private providers and health groups recognized that a "different" type of information system and data elements are required to run their organizations and survive in a competitive environment driven by increasing consumer demands and expectations and to deliver personalized evidence-based services. Besides using ICT resources to boost productive specialization (such as allowing the efficient use of diagnostic services and consultations, maintenance of integrated records, reduction in the number of specialists, and attainment of economies of scale by linking to national and international markets) there are many new areas of application that are rapidly gaining ground and reducing care costs while improving the continuity and quality of care [28
]. The lack of involvement of Latin American and Caribbean public-sector stakeholders in the use of ICT is worrisome. At a time when, in many countries, the ailing, bureaucratic, and inefficient public sector is struggling against poorly-regulated privatization of social services, there is a clear danger in that their inaction in adopting ICT solutions may hasten the further reduction and even the demise of public health services incapable of competing with an information-technology enabled private sector.
Fast Changing Environments, Untried Business Models, and Excessive Expectations in New Technologies and Processes
Resources, products, and markets that are highly specialized, closed, and regulated are being swiftly opened to new players in a marketplace that is still mostly unregulated and, at the same time, when novel and untried health reform models are being introduced. These circumstances carry with them a very high unpredictability of outcomes. Although businesses and public organizations are adapting with varying speed to new processes and models, the organizational "culture," and the nature and frequency of those business-environment changes may create friction, desirable and undesirable impacts, and personal behaviors that may impede the sequence of the expected project results. Broad objectives are difficult to achieve, the best strategy is to identify the most-repetitive tasks associated with significant costs - eg, the automation of claims and reimbursement procedures - and then proceed area by area. The results of the experience with e-Commerce and e-Business over the last 2 years clearly show that the emergence, adaptation, and real-world deployment of new technologies is a complex issue teeming with uncertainties. For a number of reasons, chiefly related to the technology employed, even in the most-industrialized and computer-literate societies e-Commerce has not developed smoothly.
Unfounded vendor-driven expectations of how the Internet will revolutionize health care have too often overshot their target [31
]. Overestimation of results and consequent unfounded expectations is a common pitfall. A common error has been to regard technology as the solution for logistical, administrative, and knowledge-management problems of health care. While, at one extreme one finds technological pessimism and distrust of computer-based solutions, and even some hardcore Luddites driven by the digital-divide concerns, at the other extreme there are truly-excessive and extravagant expectations. The allurement of zero inventory, the oversimplified understanding of business processes, and far-fetched business models with thin or absent margins of return and costly customer acquisition and maintenance strategies have led many e-Companies to bankruptcy. The proliferation of e-Commerce sites of every conceivable nature, clearly not economically viable, resulted in the risk-capital investment bubble that ushered the catastrophic global technology-market collapse of the past year, which also slowed down the deployment of ICT applications in general in the region.
The lesson to be learned for eHealth is that technology is a tool, which can be justified economically only if organizations deploy it in a real-practice environment and closely track how managers and direct-care professionals are using it. This requires the stepwise development and implementation of processes and metrics to monitor productivity and impact [3
Web enabling business and government operations is expensive. The United States can be used as a case example: Internet-based marketplaces can lower operational costs and improve efficiencies but deployment expenses will ordinarily cost a typical business US $5.4 million to US $23 million over 5 years. Required procedures involve changing procurement processes, integrating online and internal systems, buying applications, and paying transactions fees and intermediaries. In general, such costs have the following distribution: 32% for internal preparation; 26% for initial contracts and fees; 20% for ongoing internal management; and 22% for ongoing fees and external services [33
]. It is difficult for health executives, particularly in the public sector, to justify such levels of investment. There is no data for health ICT expenditures in the region but estimations for all sectors are summarized in .
Estimated expenditures in ICT for all sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2001 by category*
Standardization is a Prerequisite
As providers and insurers soon realized, the simple automation of current processes and services and putting them in a Web-enabled environment is not feasible [3
]. A great amount of work has been done in the creation and promotion of data-related standards [12
] and, despite the lack of standards in some areas, fortunately there are solutions that allow different organizations and systems to communicate through standardized open-access Internet software languages. Process and data standards for the health care industry involving all constituents - employers, consumers, providers, payers, and regulators - promoted by accrediting organizations have facilitated the adoption of common procedures and routines. A certain amount of standardization also has been driven by regulatory action. In the United States, the introduction of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations forced a reluctant health industry to adopt uniform formats for health-data exchanges and uniform code sets to identify internal and external health services activities and to be HIPAA-compliant became a requirement of all applications. However, even in developed countries the lack of national standards for unique person identification has slowed implementation of patient-based information systems. An extensive review and reference source on health care data standards was published by the Pan American Health Organization [12
Security and Privacy are Major Concerns
Data security and privacy of personal health data are universal concerns and a high-priority issue in many countries. There is a growing concern regarding the protection of health records against intrusion, unauthorized use, data corruption, intentional or unintentional damage, theft, and fraud. Health data transmitted over national and international networks offer unprecedented opportunities for better patient care and community health interventions by facilitating data exchange among professionals but pose new challenges to confidentiality. The promise of the Internet to improve care by timely access to the right information can only be realized through secure connections shared across all platforms.
Given the sensitive nature of health care information, and the high degree of dependence of health professionals on trustworthy records, the issues of reliability (data residing in the electronic health record is accurate and remains accurate), security (owner and users of the electronic health record can control data transmission and storage), and privacy (subject of data can control its use and dissemination) are of particular significance and must be clearly and effectively addressed by health and health-related organizations and professionals. Reliability, security, and privacy are accomplished by the implementation of a number of preventive and protective policies, tools, and actions that address the areas of physical protection, data integrity, access to information resources, and protection against unauthorized disclosure of information [34
]. A comprehensive review and reference source on personal data protection regulation was published by the Pan American Health Organization [34
Quality of Publicly Available Information
This is probably one of the most serious issues in the area of Internet-based interactive health communications. The Internet offers unprecedented power to provide all users of health care information - patients, professionals, families, caregivers, educators, researchers, insurers, regulators, and policymakers - with data of unprecedented timeliness, accuracy, depth, and diversity. Yet it is equally clear that the very qualities that make the Internet such a rich marketplace of ideas - its decentralized structure, its global reach, its leveling of access to the tools of publication, its immediacy of response, and its ability to facilitate free-ranging interchange - also make the Web a channel for potential misinformation, concealed bias, covert self-dealing, and evasion of legitimate regulation. It is very difficult to ascertain and provide recommendations about the credibility, motives, sponsorship, and eventual conflicts of interest in the more than 50000 health Web sites in existence. Many websites are profit driven, others promote unproven and even dangerous forms of treatment or products, while others may be well intentioned, but contain misleading or false information [30