Executive summary

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have great potential to improve health in both developed and developing countries by enhancing access to health information and making health services more efficient; they can also contribute to improving the quality of services and reducing their cost. Patient information systems, for example, have the ability to track individual health problems and treatment over time, giving insight into optimal diagnosis and treatment of the individual as well as improving the delivery of services. This is particularly useful for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and for maternal and child health services where a record of health and treatment over a period of time is required. Analysis of data in patient information systems can lead to new insight and understanding of health and disease, both chronic and acute.

Over the past decades, there have been great advances in ICTs for health, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has responded by establishing the Global Observatory for eHealth (GOe) to assess the adoption of eHealth in Member States as well as the benefits that ICTs can bring to health care and patients’ well-being. To that end, the second global survey on eHealth was launched in late 2009, designed to explore eight eHealth areas in detail.

This, the final report in the Global Observatory for eHealth Series, assesses the results of the survey module that dealt with the patient information. It examines the adoption and use of patient information systems in Member States and reviews data standards and legal protection for patient data. The survey results – provided by WHO region, World Bank income group, and globally – showed that electronic information systems are being increasingly adopted within health settings; while this is seen primarily in higher-income countries, emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India, for instance, are also beginning to introduce electronic medical records (EMRs) into their health systems.

Low-income countries, however, have struggled to initiate large-scale electronic medical record systems. While some low-income countries have been able to attract technical and financial resources to install patient information systems at some sites, these require significant investments for their successful implementation. In fact, these systems require abundant resources including skilled labour, technological, and financial means, all of which can be difficult to procure in low-income settings. Further, patient information systems designed for high-income country health systems may not be appropriate in low-income countries In particular, internationally-harmonized clinical models and concepts are needed for data interoperability and standardized international case-reporting, which could mitigate discrepancies between systems. The International Organization for Standardization’s Technical Committee on health informatics ISO TC 215, or example, has developed an eHealth architecture that incorporates levels of maturity into the components of a health system to address these differences in requirements and capacity.

Of course, these issues are only relevant to electronic patient information systems. While use of such systems is increasing, many Member States still rely on paper-based systems for health data collection. The survey data analysed by WHO region showed that all regions have a high use of paper-based systems, particularly the African Region and South-East Asia Region. Countries within the Regions of the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific reported a higher use of electronic transmission of health records than computer use to collect health data. This may be due to the use of fax or scanned image technology where the communication is electronic but the origin and destination are paper.

The use of electronic systems is higher for aggregated (summary) data than individual patient data. This could be because there is an institutional need for the aggregate data at management levels which in turn stimulates the creation of an electronic system. There may be a perception that individual patient data in electronic format may not be of as much value for administration, particularly given the difficulty of implementing patient information systems in general. However, the value of individual patient data for improved patient care is very much a case of ‘connect the dots’: given that many patients receive services from separate facilities and care providers, some form of electronic record system could compile these data and make them accessible to other health care professionals, leading, for example, to early detection of an influenza outbreak.

Electronic health systems must be built in a way to facilitate the exchange of data; disparate systems using separate disease definitions, for example, are of little value. Standards must be applied to the data and the systems themselves to allow for and facilitate the exchange of data between various sources. The adoption of standards is progressing well across most Member States including standards for eHealth architecture, data, interoperability, vocabulary, and messaging. These are important foundation blocks for the implementation of patient information systems because they facilitate clear communication. In addition, most countries have taken steps to establish legal frameworks for the protection of patient data.

The report concludes with an overview of steps Member States can take to facilitate the implementation of patient information systems. These include adoption of open source, standards-based software platforms and data exchange standards to make efficient use of existing resources. In addition, there needs to be clear legislation governing patient privacy and protecting the security of health information for records in electronic format. Finally, the development of well-trained health informatics professionals should be a priority.