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Everybody talks about e-health these days, but few people have come up with a clear definition of this comparatively new term. Barely in use before 1999, this term now seems to serve as a general "buzzword," used to characterize not only "Internet medicine", but also virtually everything related to computers and medicine. The term was apparently first used by industry leaders and marketing people rather than academics. They created and used this term in line with other "e-words" such as e-commerce, e-business, e-solutions, and so on, in an attempt to convey the promises, principles, excitement (and hype) around e-commerce (electronic commerce) to the health arena, and to give an account of the new possibilities the Internet is opening up to the area of health care. Intel, for example, referred to e-health as "a concerted effort undertaken by leaders in health care and hi-tech industries to fully harness the benefits available through convergence of the Internet and health care." Because the Internet created new opportunities and challenges to the traditional health care information technology industry, the use of a new term to address these issues seemed appropriate. These "new" challenges for the health care information technology industry were mainly (1) the capability of consumers to interact with their systems online (B2C = "business to consumer"); (2) improved possibilities for institution-to-institution transmissions of data (B2B = "business to business"); (3) new possibilities for peer-to-peer communication of consumers (C2C = "consumer to consumer").
So, how can we define e-health in the academic environment? One JMIR Editorial Board member feels that the term should remain in the realm of the business and marketing sector and should be avoided in scientific medical literature and discourse. However, the term has already entered the scientific literature (today, 76 Medline-indexed articles contain the term "e-health" in the title or abstract). What remains to be done is - in good scholarly tradition - to define as well as possible what we are talking about. However, as another member of the Editorial Board noted, "stamping a definition on something like e-health is somewhat like stamping a definition on 'the Internet': It is defined how it is used - the definition cannot be pinned down, as it is a dynamic environment, constantly moving."
It seems quite clear that e-health encompasses more than a mere technological development. I would define the term and concept as follows:
e-health 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. In a broader sense, the term characterizes not only a technical development, but also a state-of-mind, a way of thinking, an attitude, and a commitment for networked, global thinking, to improve health care locally, regionally, and worldwide by using information and communication technology.
This definition hopefully is broad enough to apply to a dynamic environment such as the Internet and at the same time acknowledges that e-health encompasses more than just "Internet and Medicine".
As such, the "e" in e-health does not only stand for "electronic," but implies a number of other "e's," which together perhaps best characterize what e-health is all about (or what it should be). Last, but not least, all of these have been (or will be) issues addressed in articles published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
In addition to these 10 essential e's, e-health should also be
- and it should definitely exist!
We invite other views on the definition of e-health and hope that over time the journal will be filled with articles which together elucidate the realm of e-health.
Journal of Medical Internet Research
Based on the author's speech delivered at UNESCO (Paris), June 2001, Conference of the International Council for Global Health Progress: Global health equity - Medical progress & quality if life in the XXIst century.
The article was partly stimulated by the question "what is ehealth?" asked by A. Risk on various mailing lists and in Health Informatics Europe http://hi-europe.co.uk/files/2001/9996.htm.
Conflicts of Interest: