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eHealth experts say technology can help solve health problems

Information and communication technologies can provide solutions to health problems, claimed eHealth specialists at the Ninth Regional Congress on Information Health Sciences (CRICS9), held 22-24 October in Washington DC and organized by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization and its Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences.

During the panel titled eHealth Strategies and Public Policies, the president of the American Public Health Association, Georges Benjamin, said that "the population and have health problems we can solve with technology," adding that ICTs contribute to "eliminate health inequalities and achieve greater community coordination."

ccording to Benjamín, health systems have a very large quantity of data that can be linked through computers. “There are also systems that they make it possible to calculate the value of health interventions and tell people what is achieved for each dollar invested," he noted. Through the use of such data, he said, public policies can improve health. For this to happen, it is necessary, among other actions, to plan investments and build connections between systems.

He also stressed the realities of technological inequity. “It is necessary to reduce disparities in access to technology so that we can speak to each other.” Some systems are out of date, he noted, but there are also places where there is not even a basic cell phone.

Access from anywhere in the world to the medical records of a patient who requires care, sharing information between remote health providers in cases of possible outbreaks, and public policies that provide support for digital research will be very important in the coming years, he observed.

Strategies of eHealth for the Americas

David Novillo, adviser on Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning in the PAHO/WHO Knowledge Management and Communications Area, presented the strategies of eHealth for the Americas. He explained that eHealth is the use of information technology and communication for public health. “When we speak about this, we are referring to electronic medical records (which are replacing paper records); telehealth, including distance medicine; the use of mobile devices—especially in disease prevention, e-learning for distance learning, and interoperability between different technologies and software applications.”

He also cited the use of the Internet for finding information and called for meeting the challenge of providing users with the most reliable tools to locate quality scientific information and make it understandable.

According to data from the Second Global Survey of eHealth in 2010, which was prepared by WHO and has information from 13 countries of the region, 82% of the states surveyed said they working on government policies on the issue, 45% said they were preparing eHealth strategies, 36% had policies on telemedicine, and 91% had eHealth initiatives making use of mobile technologies.

In 2011, PAHO/WHO Member States approved a strategy for eHealth and in September this year a strategy for Knowledge Management and Communication. The eHealth strategy sets out four priorities: the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of effective public policies; the use of tools and methodologies based on technologies; horizontal collaboration between countries for the development of a digital eHealth agenda for the Region, and the management of knowledge and digital literacy.

Since then, PAHO has supported 16 countries of the Americas in this area. “One of the challenges is to identify good practices and promote knowledge transfer between countries”, Novillo observed. He stressed that the Pan American Health Organization will continue to work for “information to be a public resource.”

Electronic government situation in Latin America and the Caribbean

For his part, Miguel Porrúa, senior eGovernment specialist at the Organization of American States (OAS), presented an overview of the status of electronic government in the region.

In a world with 2.2 billion Internet users, 6.1 million cell phones, and 300,000 text messages sent every second, the worlds of medicine and technology cannot walk on isolated pathways, he noted. The Facebook social network has some one billion users, half of whom use the network every day, he added. And Apple has become the most highly desired company on the stock exchange. 

According to data from two studies, one by the United Nations (UNDESA), and the other by the World Economic Forum (WEF-INSEAD) only three countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (Barbados, Chile, and Uruguay) rank among the top 50 countries worldwide in development of electronic government.

Porrúa pointed out that 8 out of 10 countries in the Region have some kind of policies related to eGovernment. However, “the progress is slow with regard to the international community.”

Nevertheless, the OAS specialist considered electronic government prospects to be positive. “Society, continuous technological changes, and the need to lower costs will put pressure on governments to move forward” on the issue. He concluded that the key is political backing for investment in human and financial resources.

Plan for eHealth and Information Systems Strategy for Public Health in Chile

The chief of the Department of ICT Sectoral Management of the Ministry of Health of Chile, René Prieto, gave a presentation on the Plan for eHealth and Information Systems Strategy for Public Health of his country. 

According to Prieto, one of the pillars for modernizing the sector “is to have technology tools that support the clinical and administrative processes, within the framework of an eHealth strategy, to meet the goals of providing more and better health.”

”When we introduce technologies in the sector we are changing how health is provided," he stressed, pointing out the importance of joint efforts of health and technology professionals.

The representative of the Chilean government laid out his government's "Sidra" strategy, noting that the incorporation of technology has to have an orientation based on the health sector and its objectives.

Challenges he identified included the following: making the strategy a state policy;  managing changes and communicating them to professionals, administrators, and patients; working out the complexities of structures and the incorporation of technologies; and the problems of interoperability through definition of common standards. “A strategy of eHealth cannot be achieved in four years, the term of a government in Chile; we need at least between eight and ten,” he calculated.

CRICS
The CRICS (Regional Congress on Health Sciences Information) series began in 1992 at a meeting of the representatives of the 37 countries that formed the Latin American Health Information Network, which today is the Virtual Health Library (VHL). It was born as an innovative congress in the fields of information and scientific communication, knowledge management, methodologies and information technologies, and their application to the development of research systems, education and health care. Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Mexico have been hosts of previous congresses in the series.  

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