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What is Digital Health?

Digital Therapeutics

Digital health is a meeting point between digital technologies and the healthcare field which go beyond the traditional IT (Information technology) involvement and allow empowering of patients/users.

On the scientific journal “mHealth”, Dr Meskó and colleagues defined the digital health phenomenon as “the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients leads to an equal level doctor-patient relationship with shared decision-making and the democratization of care”.

This is a paradigm shift form a patient-physician paternalistic relationship to a teamwork model, enabled by (but not limited to) digital technologies.

Digital health encompasses a wide range of products and services. Digital devices and software have been developed to diagnose diseases and there are even management and treatment apps; but it also includes clinical decision support systems, prevention and wellness, data generation through sensors and wearables, telemedicine and so on.

How to distinguish  between IT and digital health?

To help distinguish what is IT and what is digital health, Dr. Meskó published an editorial in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Research where suggested a general rule of thumb, the “Gary-rule”.

If a technological issue comes up in a healthcare setting such as the antivirus software becomes outdated or the electronic medical record system stopped working, and we have to call Gary, the IT guy, as he is alone capable of solving it whatever methods he uses, it’s an IT issue. If Gary is not enough to address the problem because more stakeholders of healthcare must get involved, (e.g., letting patients bring the data of their trackers into the medical practice and merge that with electronic medical records, or allowing physicians to do remote consultations on a regular basis), it’s digital health.

Being an emerging field, there isn’t a widespread definition, so it happens there are some grey areas.

An example is provided by electronic medical record (EMR) systems. EMRs are used by healthcare providers to collect patient health information in a digital format. They provide a single point of reference for all clinical staff and could also inform clinical decision support systems (CDSS) or other integrations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Digital Therapeutics Alliance (DTA) consider EMRs as Health IT (a sub-field of digital health) while the above-mentioned “Gary rule” considers them in the same group of traditional IT interventions.

Personally, I’d like too to distinguish between basic IT solutions and healthcare IT, considering more complex and healthcare-specific systems as part of digital health. Anyway, what’s important is to be able to understand which definition is currently being used by others, in order to have productive discussions.

Why is digital health important?

The scalability of the “digital” components, comparing to traditional healthcare services, together with the increasing data availability allows to reduce inefficiencies and costs while providing a more and more personalized medicine. It also promises to help improving access and quality of care.

And it isn’t just a hype, even FDA is focusing on digital health.

Considering the great promises, it’s even more important to be able support every specific digital health product claim with appropriate evidence.