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History of e-Health at ITU

The basic concept of e-Health (including telemedicine) is as old as using telephones and the telegraph to provide medical advice at a distance in the early 1900s. As time and technologies progressed, so grew the interest in and the sophistication of e-Health.

A century later, ITU Member States requested access to healthcare services for rural communities through telecentres and public phone booths at the first World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires (WTDC, 1994). Participants agreed to review the potential benefits of telecommunications in health care and in other related social services through a four-year study to be undertaken by Study Group 2 of the Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Meanwhile, ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO) established cooperation mechanisms in 1995 to facilitate the provision of health and medical services supported by ICTs.

In response to ITU’s work in this field and to proposals of the Regional Telecommunication Development Conferences in Africa and for the Arab States (1996), the 1st World Telemedicine Symposium for Developing Countries was held in Portugal in 1997 to identify the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to improve medical care for people living in remote regions.

By 1998, ITU’s Study Group 2 was recommending the need for greater collaboration between the Ministries of Health and Telecommunications and to establish partnerships between telecommunication operators and telemedicine experts, equipment suppliers and service providers. Disseminating information on pilot projects in rural areas was seen as a means of raising awareness on potential approaches to telemedicine and their relative cost-effectiveness. In its Valletta Action Plan that year, the second WTDC approved these recommendations and requested the Study Group to continue reviewing these issues.

At the 2nd World Telemedicine Symposium for Developing Countries (Argentina, 1999) participants agreed to a set of general guidelines on how to deploy telemedicine applications.

At the start of this century, the concepts of "telemedicine" and "telehealth" were broadened and integrated into "e-Health" as the best way to define the means of providing healthcare services at a distance.

WTDC decisions in 2002 further focused ITU's efforts to assist developing countries to bridge the digital divide in e-Health through the efforts of its Programme 3 on e-Strategies and e-Services/applications and of e-Health experts in its Study Group 2, referred to above.

Under the auspices and funding of the European Commission, the Telemedicine Alliance (TMA) was established by ITU, WHO and the European Space Agency to create a vision of a citizen-centered healthcare network in Europe by 2010. In 2005, the consortium published a strategy paper on how to lower the interoperability barriers to European e-Health systems from a political, socio-organizational and technical perspective. (See TMA Bridge.)

At its meetings in 2003 and 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, 2003/2005) identified ITU as a potential partner for its Action Line C7 on e-Health, with WHO acting as moderator/facilitator. As a follow-up, ITU opened a portal on ICT success stories around the world – including e-Health applications – to raise awareness on how ICTs and the internet are being used to help bridge the digital divide. The World of Health IT Conference of 2006 later also brought together participants from ITU, WHO, UNESCO, UNITAR and industry partners to discuss key issues relating to cybersecurity for e-Health. Finally, in 2006, the 4th WTDC made secure and trusted e-Health and other ICT applications a key element of ITU’s assistance to developing countries.

Today’s rapid growth of broadband technology and the convergence of telecommunications, computing and information and multimedia applications are opening up many new perspectives for e-Health development. The challenge is to make these applications work for developing countries cost-effectively.


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Updated : 2008-05-21