HIMSS launches new definition of digital health

The nonprofit professional organization hopes to unify the industry with an active, useful definition of an often-ambiguous term.
By Jonah Comstock
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Ask 10 healthcare stakeholders what "digital health" is and odds are you'll get 10 different answers. It's an imprecise terminology, a reality that has vexed the industry and its press on more than one occasion.

Last week, HIMSS (MobiHealthNews's parent company) posted its own definition that it hopes will provide useful clarity to the industry, along with a white paper that presents HIMSS' Digital Health Framework. Here's the definition HIMSS came up with:

Digital health connects and empowers people and populations to manage health and wellness, augmented by accessible and supportive provider teams working within flexible, integrated, interoperable, and digitally-enabled care environments that strategically leverage digital tools, technologies and services to transform care delivery.

"Definitions are really hard to create, especially as a researcher," Anne Snowdon, director of clinical research at HIMSS, told MobiHealthNews. "You don’t just pull them out of the sky. I started by having my team go into the literature and find every definition of digital health that’s publicly available."

Snowdon's team found more than 30 definitions, and the vast majority of them took the form of a laundry list of technologies that digital health encompasses: telehealth, mobile health, eHealth.

"The catch is, if you’re a health system leader like a CEO or a chief medical or chief nursing officer, exactly what do you do with that?" she said. "Ok, there’s digital technologies out there. The next question is what do they achieve, for whom, under what conditions do they achieve value, and which ones should I pay attention to?"

Additionally, a technology-based definition risks becoming out of date as the technology changes. So Snowdon's team set out to create a definition built around not what digital health is, but around what digital health does.

"The HIMSS definition is really intended to do two things: It’s system-focused, so what does a digital health system achieve in terms of an outcome, and [it looks at] how does it achieve that? What’s the role of digital technology in advancing digital health? And if you look at that definition, there [are] some key components to it. One is, what does it achieve in empowered consumers or citizens? It empowers people to self-manage their health and wellness. The second thing it’s very much connected to is, it connects clinical teams, using digital technology, to consumers to help them to help themselves in terms of optimizing health and wellness."

For HIMSS, the digital health framework that goes hand-in-hand with this definition is an extension, if not a culmination, of the many maturity models the organization has created over the years, Snowdon said. She believes HIMSS is uniquely situated to create a useful working definition of digital health, both because of that previous success and because it's a multi-stakeholder collaborative organization.

"It's the only global network with those specific assets: The reach across stakeholders, the global reach to support learning from system to system, and the seven maturity tools which are really the suite of tools that are going to collectively advance toward the digital health ecosystem for health systems," she said.

Snowdon is proud of the work her team has done and encourages people to check out the definition and the whitepaper.

"There’s probably a better version of this definition, but it was really put out there to build the dialogue and have people react to it and say ‘Hey, I think that wording is wrong, I think that should be this,'" she said. "And that’s good, that’s what you want. You want the community, globally, to inform this definition. But this definition comes from all of the current evidence today and research-based authors who have written about digital health, what it achieves, and why it matters."