Why national eHealth programs need dead philosophers: Wittgensteinian reflections on policymakers' reluctance to learn from history

Milbank Q. 2011 Dec;89(4):533-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00642.x.


Context: Policymakers seeking to introduce expensive national eHealth programs would be advised to study lessons from elsewhere. But these lessons are unclear, partly because a paradigm war (controlled experiment versus interpretive case study) is raging. England's $20.6 billion National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT) ran from 2003 to 2010, but its overall success was limited. Although case study evaluations were published, policymakers appeared to overlook many of their recommendations and persisted with some of the NPfIT's most criticized components and implementation methods.

Methods: In this reflective analysis, illustrated by a case fragment from the NPfIT, we apply ideas from Ludwig Wittgenstein's postanalytic philosophy to justify the place of the "n of 1" case study and consider why those in charge of national eHealth programs appear reluctant to learn from such studies.

Findings: National eHealth programs unfold as they do partly because no one fully understands what is going on. They fail when this lack of understanding becomes critical to the programs' mission. Detailed analyses of the fortunes of individual programs, articulated in such a way as to illuminate the contextualized talk and action ("language games") of multiple stakeholders, offer unique and important insights. Such accounts, portrayals rather than models, deliver neither statistical generalization (as with experiments) nor theoretical generalization (as with multisite case comparisons or realist evaluations). But they do provide the facility for heuristic generalization (i.e., to achieve a clearer understanding of what is going on), thereby enabling more productive debate about eHealth programs' complex, interdependent social practices. A national eHealth program is best conceptualized not as a blueprint and implementation plan for a state-of-the-art technical system but as a series of overlapping, conflicting, and mutually misunderstood language games that combine to produce a situation of ambiguity, paradox, incompleteness, and confusion. But going beyond technical "solutions" and engaging with these language games would clash with the bounded rationality that policymakers typically employ to make their eHealth programs manageable. This may explain their limited and contained response to the nuanced messages of in-depth case study reports.

Conclusion: The complexity of contemporary health care, combined with the multiple stakeholders in large technology initiatives, means that national eHealth programs require considerably more thinking through than has sometimes occurred. We need fewer grand plans and more learning communities. The onus, therefore, is on academics to develop ways of drawing judiciously on the richness of case studies to inform and influence eHealth policy, which necessarily occurs in a simplified decision environment.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Famous Persons*
  • Health Care Reform / organization & administration*
  • Health Plan Implementation
  • Health Planning / organization & administration*
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Internet / organization & administration*
  • Philosophy, Medical / history*
  • Policy Making
  • Social Marketing
  • State Medicine / organization & administration
  • Total Quality Management
  • United Kingdom

Personal name as subject

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein