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Digital technology can make a significant impact on healthcare
DIGITAL technology is so inextricably woven into our social fabric that most of us find it hard to remember life in the pre-digital era.
It is what I call the "digitalisation of our lives".
From our travel data to financial history, it all lives somewhere in this digital world. Some industries - such as retail and banking - that become truly digital first, have played a huge part in this.
Yet details about our health, as individuals, as a community or even as a society are not fully integrated into the digital world.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THIS?
Some of the biggest issues facing healthcare systems around the world are similar: ageing populations, rising burden of chronic diseases, shortage of healthcare resources and in the case of low-income countries, poor healthcare infrastructure.
We are at a point in time where, while life-altering breakthroughs in diagnostics and medical treatments can come at a rapid pace, improvements to the way healthcare is actually delivered, can often happen slowly.
This is where digital technology can make significant, long-lasting impact. Access to meaningful healthcare data in a timely manner can help inform policy decisions and provide insights that can improve healthcare delivery.
And in a sign that change is already upon us - the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its first-ever digital health guidelines earlier this year with recommendations on using technology to promote health.
How can we continue to harness the power of digital to solve existing healthcare challenges while anticipating the needs of tomorrow?
LOOKING AT "PATIENTS" AS CONSUMERS
The healthcare system has traditionally delineated patients as those receiving care, and the providers of care as experts and therefore, decision makers. But as wearables, sensors and embedded technologies have shown us, people want to take a proactive approach to health and their own data.
They do not see health data any differently from say their mobile usage data. Both are a means to an end, and give them an understanding about their needs. In the case of health data, it allows them to track information about themselves and their well-being.
But because we have not looked at health from a consumer lens, we have failed to consider their user experience. We live in a digitally enabled environment where technology has greatly enhanced everyday experiences. Yet, when it comes to health care, these same expectations remain unfulfilled. Patients like us all and like the consumer of any other service, demand a convenient, easy-to-understand user experience which is often difficult for our healthcare institutions to deliver in the current ecosystem.
While countries such as Singapore have taken steps in establishing a centralised National Electronic Health Record, there is a need to seamlessly and safely integrate patient data across the healthcare continuum. When we achieve this, will we truly revolutionise health care as we know it today - allowing patients' data to follow them wherever they are.
USE DIGITAL TOOLS TO ALLEVIATE THE DOCTOR-PATIENT RATIO IMBALANCE
Many countries in the Asia-Pacific are still below the WHO's recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 patients. While capacity and capability building efforts are underway, it cannot realistically address current challenges.
A recent Lancet study predicts a shortage of oncologists as cancer rates rise. These doctors face enormous time pressure and have to sift through a staggering amount of information to make treatment decisions, for every single cancer patient.
This is where digital tools can make a difference. With the amount of healthcare data that is generated and made available to healthcare providers, institutions and payers growing rapidly, such tools can convert big data into meaningful and actionable insights, thereby adding enormous value to the healthcare system.
TREAT HEALTH DATA WITH THE SAME CARE AS FINANCIAL ASSETS
In a world where data is widely collected and used, regulations on data privacy and ownership are crucial. While we take much care in protecting financial assets, the same cannot be said for health data. In an ideal world, individuals would own and control access to their data. But this is still an evolving space, as the industry and regulators identify ways to manage this.
Everyone operating in the health ecosystem is responsible for protecting health data. Companies should use the data that they have access to responsibly, while regulatory parties and ethics boards need to balance protecting the freedom and rights of individuals, with providing necessary information to drive innovation.
UNLOCKING VALUE FOR SOCIETY
While people today are living healthier lives, many remain susceptible to preventable diseases and premature deaths. With a quarter of Singapore's population expected to be over 65 years of age by 2030, providing care that meets the needs of an evolving society is an immediate priority. Singapore is piloting several health technology initiatives to help shape its healthcare delivery model, optimise resources, and ultimately benefit society.
The use of diagnostic and digital tools offers one of the greatest targeted intervention and cost-savings opportunities. Earlier, individualised interventions can diminish subsequent health complications, decrease the time spent in hospital and reduce the need for late-stage or unnecessary treatment thereby significantly curbing health-related spending. Studies in high-income countries have shown that treatment costs for patients diagnosed earlier are two to four times less expensive compared to treating those diagnosed with advanced stage cancer.
We are now at a critical juncture in healthcare history.
Although various countries have achieved promising results with digital adoption, the full value of a health transformation - built on the foundation of digital technology - is yet to be realised. So far, health systems have been unable to close quality, access, and financial gaps, even as their budgets continue to expand.
But there is hope. What we decide today will determine success in the future.
- The writer is managing director, Region Asia Pacific at Roche Diagnostics