A brief history of Digital Health – Part 1

Lorena Macnaughtan

As part of our Digital Health Festival, Lorena Macnaughtan, a digital health PhD student from University of Nottingham, has provided the Digital Catapult with a brief history of digital health. The information from this blog post is based on Lorena’s previous publications on Nuviun: The Curious Case of Digital Health and All Eyes on Digital Health.

In the midst of defining and redefining what Digital Health is and what it can do for us, let’s start from the very beginning.

Prehistory (pre-1985)

First, there was telemedicine. In this age, medical imaging benefits most from digitisation. Two significant industry associations are founded: COCIR in 1959 and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) in 1961.

The Hit Wave (1986-1999)

Under the enthusiastic managerial vision “one size fits all” solutions are tested, not only for information and communication technologies, but also for many areas of healthcare. However, the ICT visionary bubble is not sustained because of a general disconnect between stakeholders.

New terms such as health informatics or telecare begin to emerge, and more professional associations appear, including the International Medical Informatics Association, the American Telemedicine Association, and the UK Telecare Services Association. Health information providers begin to set ground as well; WebMD was founded in 1996, with Medline Plus launching two years later.

The end of this period marks the demise of managerial dominance in healthcare and the shift to consumerism, driven by economic prosperity and the internet technology revolution.

Digital Health 3

The internet technology revolution marked a shift from managerial dominance in healthcare

The Insights Age (2000 – 2009)

New terms emerging during this period include eHealth, Digital Health, mHealth, Connected Health, Personalised Health and Telehealth. Continua and mHealth Alliance are some of the professional associations founded during this time.

Medical imaging, health content (WellDoc) and patient networks like PatientsLikeMe are the main beneficiaries. There are only a few wireless sensing device companies established at this point – Monica Healthcare and Fitbit being two of them.

The Great Expectations Age (2010 – present)

In this era, Digital Health becomes a web of interconnected matters to solve, involving issues of privacy, interoperability, ownership, and safety. Digital technologies develop at an amazing pace and devices become cheaper, smarter and more customisable. Platforms like Microsoft’s Connected Health, Apple’s HealthKit, and Google Fit arrive, and Apple causes yet another big bang in Digital Health (after the iPhone), with the Apple Research Kit in 2015.

The digital health industry becomes crowded, not only with apps, wearables, and ‘insideables’, but with new players from pharmaceutical and academic industries. 2014 showed an unexpected appetite for investments reaching $4.1B, “nearly the total of all three prior years combined”. Last year the European Union estimated that the mHealth market will reach over €17bn by 2017, while by 2018, the wearable market alone is estimated by Statista to grow to 13 times its 2013 size.


Statista predicts the wearable market to grow x13 its size from 2013-2018

What does the future hold in store?

Lorena says: “Although in a fluid, alluring, and frustrating state, digital health has become a credible, legitimate approach to changing healthcare. Some industries take a few years to mature; others may take decades. It is difficult to predict how long it will take for digital health, but due to the heavily regulated nature of healthcare, it is not likely to happen fast, as there is still a gross disconnect between stakeholders. Until they truly listen to each other, digital health will remain a disconcerting web of problems.

How do you think digital health will evolve in the future? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to share them with us in the comments section below.

Lorena Macnaughtan is a PhD student specialising in digital health at the University of Nottingham. Read more of Lorena’s research on her website and on Twitter @L_Macnaughtan. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult for more #digihealthfest news and events.

2 Comments on:
“A brief history of Digital Health – Part 1”

  1. Ivo Holanec says:

    Great article! I think in the next 5 – 7 years 5G will become the backbone of the Internet of Things and will enable the virtualisation of care. Looking into 2030 we might have a DNA specific medications, quantum computing and teleportation.

    • Lorena Macnaughtan says:

      Dear Ivo,
      I am very pleased you enjoyed it. I am certain that increase of capacity and penetration of the data infrastructure will make so many things possible. I hope you are correct about teleportation, as I am travelling intensively this week and I can say I did not enjoy my 2 hour flight delay :). Thank you again for the nice words

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