The concept of eHealth has “Jumped the Shark”

By Mike Martineau

This past May I attended, as I have every year for the past ten years, the annual Canadian eHealth conference. Held for the first time at the new Ottawa Convention Centre, the Canadian eHealth conference is a networking and educational event that attracts health IT decision makers, thought leaders, vendors, and users from across Canada as well as international delegates. As I listened to various presentations and chatted with people about their reactions to the presentations that they attended, I began to wonder whether eHealth as a concept has “jumped the shark” and is on its way to becoming irrelevant.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase “jumping the shark,” it indicates, according to Wikipedia, “the moment when a brand, design, or creative effort’s evolution loses the essential qualities that initially defined its success and declines, ultimately, into irrelevance.” Its origins reside in a particular episode of the once popular television show “Happy Days.” In this episode, one of the show’s more notable characters, Arthur Fonzarelli (aka “the Fonz” and played by Henry Winkler), jumped over a shark tank on water skis while wearing a bathing suit and his trademark leather jacket. Many critics cited this gimmick as evidence of the show’s waning popularity.

To be clear, I am not suggesting for a moment that the use of information technology in the delivery of healthcare services is in any way on the wane or somehow irrelevant. Rather, like Forbes Magazine, I think that “the stars are aligned” and that we are nearing “an inflection point for digital health.” While I am not sure whether 2013 is the “Year of Digital Health” as a February 2013 Forbes article of the same name suggests, I do concur that the “list of contributors to digital health is vast and smart as heck” and that the “very nature of the mixed and varied voices coming together will result in a ‘critical mass’ of brilliance.”

In a 2001 Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) editorial, Gunter Eysenbach claims that the term “eHealth” was “apparently first used by industry leaders and marketing people rather than academics.” According to Mr. Eysenbach, “they created and used this term in line with other ‘e-words’ such as e-commerce, e-business, e-solutions, and so on, in an attempt to convey the promises, principles, excitement (and hype) around e-commerce (electronic commerce) to the health arena, and to give an account of the new possibilities the Internet is opening up to the area of health care.”

More than 10 years later, the Internet has forever changed how we communicate, conduct commerce and even entertain ourselves. It is not clear we still have need for an “e-word” that conveys “promises” or generates “excitement” about the “possibilities” that the Internet holds for healthcare.

In what I consider to be eHealth’s “jumping the shark” moment, many health IT vendors are touting the promise of mobile technologies and exchanging the “e” in eHealth for an “m” to create mHealth. Seriously? Is there really a need for a distinct term to raise awareness of the benefits of mobile access to data?

Consider, for example, the rapid growth in the use of smartphones. According to ComScore, smartphone use in Canada rose from 45% of mobile phone users in 2011 to 62% in 2012. Physician use of smartphones is even higher. A 2012 Manhattan Research study found that more than 8 in 10 US physicians use a smartphone, up from just over 20% a scant three years earlier. Clearly people have figured out the advantages of having a mobile device on which to perform a variety of tasks and don’t need yet another made-up term to encourage use of these devices.

Andy Shaw, one of my favourite health IT writers, offers a perspective on telehealth that I think is equally applicable to eHealth. In an October 2012 Canadian Healthcare Technology article, Andy writes “Like old soldiers, Canadian telehealth isn’t dying, but rather slowly fading away – as many of its proponents fervently hope.” To illustrate his point, Andy quotes Ed Brown, CEO of the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN), who says, “Our vision is to make telemedicine a mainstream part of healthcare.”

eHealth, like other forms of IT, is quickly becoming mainstream and its use will fade away. Commenting on the Forbes article I cited earlier, John Nosta, founder and President of NOSTALAB and a regular Forbes contributor, argues:

“Having transformed sectors such as administration and trade, digital technology has now achieved such a level of security and is accepted by the general public to such a degree that it is in a position to target the healthcare industry. In a very short space of time, IT has become mainstream. Thanks, in particular, to the rapid development of smartphones, mobile Internet networks and other touchscreen tablets, digital technology has broken free from geeky adolescents’ bedrooms and become firmly lodged in everyone’s pockets and is here to stay.”

Do you think that eHealth has “jumped the shark”? Are we entering an era of Digital Health as predicted by Forbes magazine? Drop me a line at michaelm@bsharp.com or comment on my blog posts on this topic at eHealthMusings.ca.

Posted July 11
, 2013