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– The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is establishing a Division of Digital Healthcare Research, aimed at improving processes – including telehealth and mHealth platforms – that collect, transmit and analyze healthcare data.

Established in 2004 as the Health IT Division, the newly renamed department “provides foundational research to ensure that digital healthcare systems are designed and implemented in ways that improve quality and safety, while not resulting in excessive burden on physicians and other members of the care team,” according to its website. Current research areas include usability, consumer-focused digital healthcare, clinical decision support, safety, patient-reported outcomes and care transitions.

The change, officials say, reflects the gradual adoption of connected health technology in the healthcare space.

“There is a new frontier of virtual healthcare delivery in the 21st century,” AHRQ Director Gopal Khanna said in a blog. “Technology can now make care available to people everywhere, and new approaches have the potential to foment new discoveries and redefine the marketplace. Ultimately, digital healthcare carries great promise to help patients better manage their conditions, coordinate their care and partner with their clinicians for better health.”

“These advances are only possible if the people, processes, and technologies that receive data from new sources are able to makes sense of the data and use them to make informed decisions,” he added. “From the internet of things (IoT), which is capable of automatically generating data on medication management, to personal health trackers for steps and sleep, the next generation of digital healthcare must integrate multiple data streams to form a 360-degree understanding of behavior.”

The AHRQ has long had its eye on the telehealth space, and helped launch Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), a telemedicine platform developed at the University of New Mexico in 2004 and designed to improve provider competency and care collaboration for patients with chronic, common and complex disease who don’t have easy access to specialists.

Looking forward, the agency wants to get a handle on how new technologies and processes are used to facilitate the move to value-based care. In his blog, Khanna defines the so-called digital healthcare space as “activities involving the transfer of information between patient and provider throughout the entire patient journey, as well as the intelligent use of all related data.”

“Traditional ‘health IT’ in the form of electronic health records can be augmented with various forms of patient-generated, contextual, and environmental data to yield new insights for healthcare delivery via advanced analytics,” the new division’s director, Chris Dymek, says on the website. “Our research needs to determine how the various components of the ever evolving digital healthcare ecosystem can best come together to positively affect healthcare delivery and create value for patients and their families.”

The division recently launched a new funding opportunity: “Improving Quality of Care and Patient Outcomes During Care Transitions.” The proposal targets research on health information technology solutions that would improve communication and care coordination as patients move between care settings, including primary, acute and specialty care providers, institutions and the patient’s home and community.