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e-Health: a new era for healthcare?

By news editor, on 6 December 2011

e-HealthLorna Hobbs reports on the UCL symposium ‘e-Health: Building the UCL Community’, held on 22 November.

Early terminations have been linked to breast cancer, and young people with severe mental illnesses are three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the general population. These are just two examples of findings that were discovered through the linkage of electronic health records in the National Health Service.

E-health is an emerging field that involves the use of new information and communication technology to improve health and healthcare. All healthcare systems currently face numerous problems as a result of ageing populations, an increase in the prevalence of long term conditions, rising costs of healthcare and rising expectations from populations. E-health is seen as one solution to these problems, and has the potential to profoundly affect the organisation and delivery of health services.

On 22 November UCL held ‘e-Health: Building the UCL Community’. The symposium brought together UCL’s vast interdisciplinary expertise (including academics in clinical medicine, psychology, sociology, health informatics, human-computer interaction, computational science, computer science, and engineering to name but a few) with a view to fuelling future collaborations and strengthening UCL’s standing as a research centre in the area of e-Health.

UCL’s Vice-Provost Sir John Tooke opened the morning session, which covered a broad range of e-Health technologies and initiatives, including:
• Real-time tracking of flu pandemics, enabling a timely response to public health concerns https://www.fluwatch.co.uk/
• Use of mobile web applications for smartphone data collection in remote settings where mobile technology is more reliable than water or electricity supplies
• Linkage of electronic health records to debunk the myth that the MMR vaccine causes pervasive developmental disorders
• Use of computer-assisted interviews with patients to improve data quality, and potentially increase reporting of high risk behaviours
• Methodological innovations to solve missing data imputation problems
• Use of computerised support systems to improve the quality of initiation and control of the anticoagulant warfarin for stroke prevention
• Linkage of electronic health records to investigate the aetiology and prognosis of specific coronary phenotypes
• Use of online interventions to reduce harmful drinking levels, increase smoking quit rates, and increase safer sexual behaviours in young people
• Use of web-based self-management programmes to assist with management of Type I and II diabetes.

After lunch, the participants broke off into parallel sessions on ‘engaging clinicians and patients’ and ‘future e-Health developments’ and workshops on ‘using mobile phones for data collection’ and ‘information security and governance’. The workshops provided a more interactive environment where the participants could learn more about topics under discussion, and also pool their expertise to try to solve some of the challenges faced by the e-Health community.

After a stimulating day of talks and workshops, the event closed with a panel discussion about the future direction of e-Health at UCL. Professor Harry Hemingway spoke of the need for infrastructure and mechanisms to allow researchers to keep up with the latest developments in e-Health, echoed by Dr Henry Potts. Dr Tito Castillo raised navigation of the information security landscape as a critical element for the success of UCL and UCL Partners.

Dr Elizabeth Murray expressed the need for researchers to focus on what works, for whom, and under what conditions, and cautioned about the issues surrounding implementation of e-Health initiatives into routine practice. Professor Peter Coveney spoke of the need to overcome fragmentation in UCL partners and NHS trusts, and the challenges of keeping up with the findings in e-Health. For example, once everyone has access to a map of their genome, what will we do with this information? Professor Ann Blandford re-emphasised the importance of ‘joined up thinking’, and the need to move from fragmentation to cohesion within the area of e-Health at UCL.

Professor Anne Johnson brought home the point that health information is only valuable when we have a clear vision of what to do with it, and Professor Graham Hart posed the question of how we make the best of disparate efforts within the university to create an overarching vision for e-Health at UCL. Other closing comments from the audience included the importance of accessibility, IT competence for clinicians, issues of leadership, and standardisation of approaches in the research community.

All in all the day fostered valuable discussions on the future of e-Health at UCL, and will no doubt fulfil its aim of acting as a springboard for future interdisciplinary, collaborative work in e-Health. Watch this space!

Lorna Hobbs is a PhD Student in the UCL e-Health unit.

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