Defining Digital Health

February 1, 2021

Digital Health: What’s in a Name?

February 1, 2021 – In his first day in his new role at the DCRI, Chief Science & Digital Officer Eric Perakslis, PhD, provides some thoughts about the definition of digital health and his plans for DCRI’s digital health strategy.

By Eric Perakslis, PhD


Portrait of Duke Rubenstein Fellow Eric Perakslis, PhD
DCRI Chief Science and Digital Officer Eric Perakslis, PhD

If you ask “Dr. Google” for a definition of digital health, the numerous and varying answers you’ll receive are ample proof that there is no universally accepted definition. Some definitions are based upon toolsets: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for instance, states that the broad scope of digital health includes:

“Categories such as mobile health (mHealth), health information technology (IT), wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, and personalized medicine.”

Others are based upon ambitions or vison for societal impact, such as this one from Mesko et al:

“…the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients leads to an equal level doctorpatient relationship with shared decisionmaking and the democratization of care.”

Still others combine the two:

Digital health is the convergence of digital technologies health, healthcare, living, and society to enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery.”

The results are even more diverse when you compare definitions for “digital health” versus “digital medicine,” as the latter term blends the concepts of digital technology tools with other rapidly evolving medical tools such as genomics, imaging, and multimodal health data. Seeking a more precise and (hopefully) universally accepted definition, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) has proposed the following:

“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.” 

In truth, I’m unsure whether this actually makes things clearer, given the length and vagueness of this definition. Interestingly, one of the earliest definitions for digital health may still be the best. Writing in 2000, S.R. Frank described digital healthcare as “…[the] convergence of Health Care and the Internet,”…noting that:

“…interactive media (the Internet and the World Wide Web) and associated applications used to access those media (portals, browsers, specialized Web-based applications) will result in a substantial, positive, and measurable impact on medical care faster than any previous information technology or communications tool.”  

This definition resonates for us because it includes the significant impacts that ease of connectivity and access to information afforded by internet browsing and search have had upon patients, clinicians, and the healthcare enterprise as a whole...Read more