Back in April 2008, an announcement was made that a new tri-continental foundation of experts were going to work together to design interoperable software and platforms that could be used by healthcare services and professionals around the world.
Referred to as Open Health Tools (OHT), the new set-up between Australia, Canada, the UK and US highlights an interesting turn for the medical industry.
This month the medical community witnessed the launch of Google Health – another project that looks at delivering health information using online services.
With both announcements so all encompassing of the global health industry, there is little doubt that health services are entering a new digital age.
What is interesting about both announcements is the foresight they offer to the way health services could be operated, and viewed in future, regardless of end user and service offering.
OPEN HEALTH TOOLS
Open-source software solutions have become increasingly common in government and business around the world as standards become more common and solutions become more robust. Open-source programmes make source code available for use or modification by end users which means, unlike off-the-shelf solutions, the cost is low and interoperability with other programmes, or between users, can be high.
The collaborative effort of the nations taking this approach for OHT will, it is hoped, make patient results and healthcare records around the world available to participating practitioners, pharmacists, clinics, hospitals and other points of care. In essence, this means a patient's records can be with them regardless of where they are in the world. The group says that: "OHT's mission is to provide software tools and components that will accelerate the implementation of electronic health information interoperability platforms, which improve patient quality of care, safety and access to electronic health records (EHR)".
The group hopes to do this by combining expertise in existing technologies, with the aim of providing a singular global resource that it says will make healthcare more efficient and safe.
OHT executive director Skip McGaughey says, despite moves in other business areas to keep pace with changes in technologies, health is behind and this new way of looking at the delivery of services is critical to healthcare of the future.
"There is a critical need for interoperability between healthcare systems and the consistent and seamless exchange of accurate data," he says.
Google Health is another way of looking at the sharing of health records. This time, however, it is managed by the patients themselves, but this does not mean its effect on hospital service delivery should be overlooked.
Launched on 19 May 2008, Google Health provides a platform that can be accessed by patients around the world, who can enter professional medical records from practitioners wherever they may be living, for their own personal records.
"Google Health aims to solve an urgent need that dovetails with our overall mission of organising patient information and making it accessible and useful. Through our health offering, our users will be empowered to collect, store and manage their own medical records online," a Google staffer called Charlie (aliases online are yet another sign of our new digital age) blogged on 21 May.
Already hospitals in the US have been signing up for trials for Google Health to see how it might help them encourage patients to manage their own health history better and more importantly, to see how patients will react to having their data stored online.
A NEW TRUST IN ONLINE?
How patients will react to the idea of e-health will either be a help or hindrance to its development. Despite the overall and quite obvious benefits it promises in health service delivery, civil libertarians normally concerned with the security of data and loss of privacy have been one of the biggest hurdles for e-health today.
Google Health itself has met criticism due to Google's statement that it may share users' personal information with other trusted businesses that use Google information, as well as the US Government and merger and acquisition partners – whoever they may be.
However, trials of Google Health at the Cleveland Clinic in the US – which tested 1,600 patients using Google Health just this year – found that "patients were eager to use the Google Health records".
Furthermore, leading hospitals such as Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston, US are joining the Google Health Advisory Council and signing on to see how Google Health could help them and how their patients benefit from services. This interest comes from an equal desire within the hospital to see patients take more care of their own medical data.
However you look at it, these two big announcements could bring about some massive changes in healthcare delivery in hospitals and other health services around the world.
Previously internet-shy patients seem to have become more trusting of online services.
As a result, health bodies are finding there is more public interest in getting such services off the ground and into trial mode.
Exactly what happens with both these projects throughout their infancy, and the reaction of the public to how their information is disseminated, could dictate just how fast e-health becomes an everyday part of hospital life in the future.