Digital to drive healthcare delivery in post-Covid Asia

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COVID-19 has accelerated the world’s reliance on technology. AI, data analytics and digital connectivity will continue to shape the future of healthcare delivery.
JULY 06, 2020 - 11:27 AM

Covid-19 has had a profound and lasting impact on many industries – not least in healthcare. In its wake, new practices have emerged in response to the need for urgent access to essential healthcare services, while maintaining the safety of both patients and caregivers. This has resulted in an accelerated reliance on technology and digital infrastructure to maintain and improve service to patients. 

Widespread disruption in Healthcare

As a provider of medical imaging and life support equipment, GE Healthcare has seen a huge shift in the demand profile of our products and how they are used. Asia, the original epicentre of the virus, saw unprecedented demand for intensive care (ICU) ventilators and patient monitors, resulting in previously unconnected partners such as GE and Ford Motor Co. working together to enable rapid ramp up of global manufacturing capacity. Diagnostic equipment such as X-ray, CT and ultrasound became essential tools in ensuring quick and accurate assessment of COVID-19 cases, thrusting radiology departments onto the frontlines of the fight against the virus. 

On the flipside, we saw non-essential procedures across Asia put on hold as hospital ICU & ER capacity threatened to become overwhelmed, and lockdowns were mandated to reduce community spread of the virus. Data gathered from GE Healthcare’s clinical command centres, which provides real-time analytics of key aspects of patient care, shows that many hospitals have been experiencing record low levels of bed occupancy as well as low utilisation of surgical and elective imaging procedures. 

With markets in Asia now starting to re-open for business, healthcare continues to be at the center of the recovery from the pandemic. The journey to the “New Normal” is not simple and will comprise several phases, each presenting new challenges for healthcare providers.

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The road to the “New Normal”

As we emerge from the Lockdown stage (Phase 1), hospitals will quickly enter a Bounce-back period (Phase 2). Here, surgical and elective procedure utilization is likely to rise above pre-COVID numbers as patients rush to undergo postponed procedures. This will be a critical period where extreme vigilance needs to be exercised to prevent a resurgence of the virus as hospitals strive to cope with higher than normal patient volumes and increased staffing levels, while ensuring the safety of patients and caregivers.

Next, comes a Living with COVID-19 stage (Phase 3), where the virus remains prevalent but contained at lower levels, as dedicated treatment sites together with new models of care and tools are introduced. In Singapore for example, the Ministry of Health committed to progressively expand healthcare capacity to continually treat COVID-19 patients, as well as ensuring that there are enough trained professionals to provide critical care services.

Finally, we reach the New Normal (Phase 4) where proven vaccines or viable treatment options exist and healthcare systems can resume full normal operations, albeit with elevated levels of pandemic vigilance and preparedness. 

Despite the gradual and imminent easing of restrictions, healthcare will certainly look different in the New Normal. Patients with non-critical conditions for example, can expect to continue consulting medical professionals virtually and getting their medication delivered to them. Medical professionals, likewise, will adopt new ways of working, using technology innovations in different ways to help them achieve better outcomes and uphold stricter safety standards. According to a study by L.E.K Consulting and GRG Health, 60 per cent of hospitals in Southeast Asia, India and Australia expect to continue using increased levels of tele-health post COVID-19.

A new mindset in the New Normal

While there continues to be some unknowns as the healthcare industry navigates its way out of COVID-19, there are to be many reasons to remain optimistic. According to Solidiance, healthcare spending in Southeast Asia is forecasted to increase to US$740 billion in 2025 up from US$420 billion spent in 2017. At the moment, healthcare spending across the ASEAN 6 has already outpaced the economic growth of these nations. This points to a rate of growth and opportunity in the region which is unlikely to be dissipate in the long run, due to fundamental growth drivers such as a rapidly growing middle class. In the New Normal, healthcare providers and the medical devices industry have an opportunity to capitalise on this trend and collaborate to drive a digital revolution in healthcare.

Going forward, technology and digital solutions will be essential to manage increasing patient volumes and staffing pressures, as was necessary during the Covid crisis. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics can be used to predict, automate, advance workflow efficiency and improve patient experience. Solutions such as our clinical command centre provide this capability. It comprises a NASA style “mission control” centre that analyses critical hospital operations from forecasting demand, reporting bed utilization, transfers between facilities, care progression and discharge planning. This enables the hospital to predict resource allocation requirements, streamline patient workflow and allow clinicians to focus on delivering the best care for a patient. 

This approach can also be applied in clinical settings too. In the ICU, the concept of virtual care has been introduced as social distancing became a critical factor in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Through digital technology, virtual care is delivered by integrating data from myriad devices that monitor the condition of a critical patient. AI enabled software aggregates the data using the cloud, allowing medical professionals to view a patient’s status remotely. The system can also be used to monitor multiple patients simultaneously as well as cross-referencing with a patient’s electronic medical records to highlight any contraindications. This reduces workflow inefficiencies, enabling clinicians to attend to more patients and more effectively prioritise the highest risk cases, while also reducing the risks of infection.

Going beyond the hospital, in many parts of Asia where specialists are concentrated in the city, digitally connected equipment can expand the reach of clinicians to ensure patients in provincial or rural areas have access to specialist services. In Vietnam, for example, the Ministry of Health recently introduced a telemedicine center that operates via a “hub & spoke” model to connect specialists in Hanoi with ICU & radiology departments in rural hospitals to provide essential clinical expertise and monitoring capabilities.

It is time for a digital revolution in healthcare

The medical frontline continues to be the most critical piece in the fabric of healthcare delivery. The challenges of maintaining high standards of care, despite volatile patient demand and increased infection control requirements - while also ensuring financial viability - will require solutions that go beyond simply the latest and greatest technical specifications. Rather, healthcare providers will require new solutions motivated by the principles of minimizing waste for medical professionals, keeping patients safe, serving patients’ needs and managing costs. 

The journey towards long-term recovery and growth in the New Normal will require new and reinforced partnerships across the healthcare ecosystem – hospital administrators, medical professionals, medical device manufacturers, technology solutions providers and more – in order to embark on a shared vision around creating a modern digitized healthcare system. 

The writer is president and CEO of GE Healthcare Asean, Korea & ANZ.