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[Editor's Note: This vintage ebizQ content has not been updated since its initial posting.]

In 1993, a bunch of smart graduate students at the University of Illinois created a browser called Mosaic, shot it out for free across ARPANET and created the Internet. Seven years later, we toss out the "e" word—e-health—with barely a thought. But before we boldly go where healthcare has never gone before, it might be wise to rethink the idea that the Internet is the only frontier. In exploring the new one, it might make sense to keep sight of the old one.

Why Healthcare Is a Special Case

Unquestionably, healthcare is information-intensive. Given this fact, one would expect healthcare to be equally information-systems-intensive. However, the degree of regulation, the complexity of its organizational structures and its abundance of costly legacy systems tend to make healthcare slow in adopting information technology.

Despite this traditional reticence, current mandates to reduce the cost and improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare are spawning and compelling countless new applications for information technology. And with its combination of wide reach, accessibility and low cost, the Internet is perhaps healthcare's most promising IT frontier.

e-Health: Beyond the Hype

These days, if it can be done electronically, somebody is doing it on the Web. From getting valid patient information for treatment and billing to making referrals and verifying insurance data, healthcare companies new and old are providing Web-based ways to do these tasks.

Just how big is e-health? It really depends on how you define it—namely, whether or not you include both consumer and business-to-business sectors. Estimates have pegged it as ranging from $25 billion to $225 billion. Either way, it's big and getting bigger. And with so much money at stake, lots of companies are taking notice, from healthcare organizations that have been in the industry for decades, to the scores of new dot.coms that seem to surface and sink each day.

Many of these new organizations and their solutions are Web-exclusive, with no ties whatsoever to any of the legacy systems so prevalent in healthcare. And no wonder: Such independence allows them to react quickly to the ever-changing demands of the market and the customer, as well as the ever-changing face of technology. It's a credible business rationale. And in any other industry, it would be a winning strategy. But healthcare isn't like any other industry.


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