Defining digital health

Digital health is growing in importance as a tool to enhance the delivery of services, care and patient outcomes within the healthcare sector.1–3 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the term ‘digital health’ refers to “the field of knowledge and practice associated with any aspect of adopting digital technologies to improve health, from inception to operation”.1

This definition was established to refine the classification of digital technologies that are used within the healthcare space. It better captures the broad scope of applications that digital heath may cover and reinforces the concept of digital health acting as a means to an end within healthcare.1

Similarly, NHS Digital has recently commented on the scope of digital health stating: “When considering the business case, there is increasing evidence of the benefits of digital health.”2

The benefits of digital health compared to traditional ‘in person’ health services for patients and carers include:

  • Improved self-care for minor ailments
  • Improved self-management of long-term conditions
  • Improved take-up of digital health tools and services
  • Time saved
  • Reduced costs reduced loneliness and isolation

The benefits for the health and care system include:

  • Lower cost
  • More appropriate use of services, including primary care and urgent care
  • Better patient adherence to medicines and treatments

The term ‘digital health’ is now a well-established concept. Put simply, digital technologies enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery, personalise treatment options, improve diagnostic accuracy and help improve outcomes for patients.

Scope of digital health technology

When we consider the scope of digital health, it may be helpful to group its applications into six core domains:

  • mHealth
  • Clinical decision support system (CDSS)
  • Telehealth
  • Health data storage
  • Health informatics
  • Digital therapeutics.3–8

Mobile health or ‘mHealth’ as it is more commonly known, refers to any medical or public health practice that is supported by the use of mobile devices. These include mobile phones, patient monitoring devices or wireless technologies that help capture personal data. mHealth aims to enhance connectivity between patients and their healthcare providers and in doing so, improve disease monitoring, treatment compliance and overall quality of care.3

CDSS is the means by which data is analysed to aid diagnosis and support healthcare professional decision-making.5

Telehealth uses technology to deliver healthcare outside of the traditional healthcare settings. This may include virtual home-based healthcare and rural diagnosis/referral in locations where healthcare services are difficult to access.5

Health data storage is the way in which data is stored and managed by healthcare organisations6.

Health informatics is the application of information engineering. It enables the efficient collection, management and use of patient health information.7

Finally, digital therapeutics refers to health interventions that are driven by software programs designed to help prevent, manage or treat a medical condition or disease.8

Technologies working in combination

Importantly, these digital health solutions do not function in isolation. The technologies can combine to create a wider ecosystem of patient care.

For example, a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate data may be collected using a smart watch device (mHealth). This information may be monitored remotely by the patient’s doctor (telehealth) who uses software to make a diagnosis based on these data (CDSS). The diagnosis may then lead to the delivery of remote treatment (digital therapeutics). Patient data may be stored in a larger database (health data storage) so other researchers can use it to train predictive algorithms to identify disease patterns and clusters (health informatics).

The growing application of digital health

In 2018, it was estimated it will cost between £10.9bn and £12.9bn over the next 5 years to support digitisation of the NHS as part of its long-term development plan.9

The scope of digital health is vast and aims to improve healthcare across a number of areas and disciplines. Naturally, the advent of new technologies will bring a new set of challenges to be overcome including data security, developing guidelines and setting industry‑wide standards for testing and roll-out.

That being said, with an ever‑expanding list of areas in which digital health may transform healthcare delivery, the future certainly looks bright for patient care.