Public Sector Health Information Systems

In the Evaluation section:


Causes of eHealth Success and Failure: Design-Reality Gap Model

Why eHealth Projects Succeed or Fail: The Design-Reality Gap Model

Central to e-health success and failure is the amount of change between 'where we are now' and 'where the e-health project wants to get us'.

'Where we are now' means the current realities of the situation.  'Where the e-health project wants to get us' means the model or conceptions and assumptions built into the project's design.  eHealth success and failure therefore depends on the size of gap that exists between 'current realities' and 'design of the e-health project'.

The larger this design-reality gap, the greater the risk of e-health failure.  Equally, the smaller the gap, the greater the chance of success.

Analysis of e-health projects indicates that seven dimensions - summarised by the ITPOSMO acronym - are necessary and sufficient to provide an understanding of design-reality gaps:

Putting these dimensions together with the notion of gaps produces the model for understanding success and failure of e-health that is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The ITPOSMO dimensions of e-health project design-reality gaps

Design-Reality Gap Examples of eHealth Success and Failure

Full Case Study Example:

1. Computerising a Central Asian Epidemiology Service

eHealth Success Thumbnail Sketch:

A 'ComputerLink' scheme for 26 home-based AIDS patients was set up that put them in touch with each other individually and in groups, and with an encyclopaedia.  In this case, system design and reality for the AIDS patients were often well matched, along the ITPOSMO dimensions:

All of this meant only limited gaps between ComputerLink design and patient/health system reality.  The result was success.  The scheme was a qualitative success, as judged by participant ratings, and a quantitative success, as judged by the fact that:

eHealth Failure Thumbnail Sketch:

A hospital attempted to introduce an expert system for computerised coloscopy.  There were significant gaps between system design and hospital reality, along dimensions including:

Overall, there was too great a gap between the expert system design and the realities of the hospital context into which it was being introduced.  The result was failure: the project was abandoned.

Design-Reality Gap Archetypes of eHealth Failure

eHealth failures come in more varieties than Heinz.  However, archetypes of failure do exist: situations when a large design-reality gap - and, hence, failure - is more likely to emerge.

Hard-Soft Gaps .  Health information systems can often be designed according to hard, rational models.  These can come from various sources.  Where technical staff dominate design, they can impose a very mechanistic design.  Where managerial staff dominate design, they can impose a very financially-rational design.  Where doctors dominate design, they can impose a very medically-rationally design.  The trouble is, many healthcare organisations don't adhere to these hard models.  In reality, they can be dominated by 'soft' factors: people, politics, emotions and culture.  When a hard e-health design meets a soft reality, there's a large gap, and a strong likelihood of failure.

Private-Public Gaps .  Private healthcare systems and public healthcare systems are different.  Private systems have different objectives, different levels of resourcing, different values, different case mixes, and different information priorities.  No problem.  Except that too many IT vendors, consultants, systems managers et al forget this.  They pick up a health information system designed for the private sector.  Then they try to shoehorn it into a very different public sector reality.  It's a classic case of square pegs and round holes.  The large design-reality gap generates lots of heat and noise, not much light and, ultimately, plenty of failure.

Country Context Gaps .  It sometimes seems only the first half of 'Think Global, Act Local' gets remembered.  Health professionals seeking quick fixes try to pull solutions off-the-shelf from other countries.  But New Delhi isn't New York, and Johannesburg isn't Jakarta.  So there's often a large design-reality gap when you try to introduce in country X an e-health system designed for country Y. The frequent result: tears before bedtime.

Taking Action on Design-Reality Gaps

Follow this link for further details about actions to take to reduce the risk of e-health failure.

Basis for analysis: a) Brennan, P.F. and Ripich, S. (1994) 'Use of a home-care computer network by persons with AIDS', International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care , 10(2), 258-272, for success thumbnail; b) Guah, M.W. (1998) Evaluation and Analysis of Multimedia Information System Design and Implementation at the Coloscopy Unit of St. James University Hospital, Leeds, UK , MSc dissertation.  School of Management, UMIST, Manchester, for the failure thumbnail; c) the cited full e-health case study; and d) Heeks, R., Mundy, D. & Salazar, A. (2000) 'Understanding success and failure of healthcare information systems', in Healthcare Information Systems , A. Armoni (ed.), Idea Group Publishing, Hershey, PA, 95-128


Page Author: Richard Heeks. Last updated on 19 October, 2008.
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