Background: Lack of consensus on the meaning of eHealth has led to uncertainty among academics, policymakers, providers and consumers. This project was commissioned in light of the rising profile of eHealth on the international policy agenda and the emerging UK National Programme for Information Technology (now called Connecting for Health) and related developments in the UK National Health Service.
Objectives: To map the emergence and scope of eHealth as a topic and to identify its place within the wider health informatics field, as part of a larger review of research and expert analysis pertaining to current evidence, best practice and future trends.
Methods: Multiple databases of scientific abstracts were explored in a nonsystematic fashion to assess the presence of eHealth or conceptually related terms within their taxonomies, to identify journals in which articles explicitly referring to eHealth are contained and the topics covered, and to identify published definitions of the concept. The databases were Medline (PubMed), the Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), the Science Citation Index (SCI), the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), the Cochrane Database (including Dare, Central, NHS Economic Evaluation Database [NHS EED], Health Technology Assessment [HTA] database, NHS EED bibliographic) and ISTP (now known as ISI proceedings). We used the search query, "Ehealth OR e-health OR e*health". The timeframe searched was 1997-2003, although some analyses contain data emerging subsequent to this period. This was supplemented by iterative searches of Web-based sources, such as commercial and policy reports, research commissioning programmes and electronic news pages. Definitions extracted from both searches were thematically analyzed and compared in order to assess conceptual heterogeneity.
Results: The term eHealth only came into use in the year 2000, but has since become widely prevalent. The scope of the topic was not immediately discernable from that of the wider health informatics field, for which over 320000 publications are listed in Medline alone, and it is not explicitly represented within the existing Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) taxonomy. Applying eHealth as narrative search term to multiple databases yielded 387 relevant articles, distributed across 154 different journals, most commonly related to information technology and telemedicine, but extending to such areas as law. Most eHealth articles are represented on Medline. Definitions of eHealth vary with respect to the functions, stakeholders, contexts and theoretical issues targeted. Most encompass a broad range of medical informatics applications either specified (eg, decision support, consumer health information) or presented in more general terms (eg, to manage, arrange or deliver health care). However the majority emphasize the communicative functions of eHealth and specify the use of networked digital technologies, primarily the Internet, thus differentiating eHealth from the field of medical informatics. While some definitions explicitly target health professionals or patients, most encompass applications for all stakeholder groups. The nature of the scientific and broader literature pertaining to eHealth closely reflects these conceptualizations.
Conclusions: We surmise that the field -- as it stands today -- may be characterized by the global definitions suggested by Eysenbach and Eng.