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Digital healthcare: why technology is here to stay

(Image credit: Image Credit: Photo_Concepts / iStock)

As we reflect on healthcare in 2020, we’ve seen an industry that has become increasingly digitized. The ongoing pandemic has seen support for healthcare spending increase and global expenditure is forecast to grow to $8.8 trillion in 2021, according to IHS Markit.

Health systems interacting with technology on an advanced level has been a priority for some time. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized the first Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems, an event dedicated to showing how technology can be adopted to “reduce inequalities in healthcare and improve the health and well-being of populations”. The second edition of the event was due to take place in March 2020 but was postponed due to Covid-19. 

Yet, while the thinking and desire to innovate has in place for a while, no one could have predicted what was to happen in 2020 and the driving force of technology adoption the pandemic would become. As healthcare systems around the world faced new strains, the adoption of technology was accelerated. We’ve now seen how quickly digital tools can be applied and begin to deliver value to patients and healthcare providers alike and the wheels are firmly in motion. 

When we look back and evaluate, could 2020 be the year that changed healthcare forever?

Restoring trust in technology

In fact, we’ve seen near record amounts of investment in Europe healthtech industry, according to VC Speedinvest and Dealroom, a sign of the desire for providers to adopt innovation in order to provide better patient care in more advanced ways. From the aforementioned video consultations and remote monitoring, right the way through to machine learning and AI, we’re seeing technology transforming processes and people are able to picture what the future may look like.

One challenge that technology in healthcare has faced is waning trust. For years, doctors and healthcare providers have been tempted with the promise of more efficient workloads through digitization. Digital patient records, for example, should have changed everything but then doctors went from looking at patients to looking at a screen. Expectations of what technology could achieve got too big and innovation – or adoption – couldn’t match it. As such, some lost trust in technology.

2020 and its events have gone someway in repairing that. The requirement to deliver healthcare from a distance forced everyone to try new ways of working. Doctors’ offices were closed and people were encouraged not to travel to hospitals unless absolutely vital, meaning one of the only methods to deliver consultations safely was over video. Suddenly, looking at a screen was truly beneficial – trust in digital services and their benefits was being restored.

AI isn’t here to takeover, it’s here to enhance

When thinking about AI, a misplaced concern is that it will eventually replace human doctors. Admittedly, this stems from various reports that state that a number of roles will be lost to automation in the coming years, but many of those are in manufacturing where roles are often more repetitive. Doctors don’t face such an issue, instead the introduction of AI should be viewed akin to an accountant using a calculator – the technology is enabling them to do their job more effectively.

Let’s consider the symptom checking and triage processes, for instance. This is where patients’ issues are gauged and then prioritized with a level of urgency. In a hospital, this could mean being asked to wait for a few hours until a doctor gives you the ‘all clear’ and tells you to go home, or it could mean being admitted and rushed for treatment.

In both scenarios, a doctor has to see the patient, ask about the symptoms, take a detailed history, before making a judgement. While a necessary part of the role, that time spent with a patient that didn’t really need to be there takes resources away from those that really do.

AI has the ability to change that. When incorporated into the processes, it can do the heavy lifting, taking the symptoms and using it to triage the patient. With triaging options ranging from self-care to calling for an ambulance, patients are provided with an immediate healthcare direction.

The solution learns and grows each time it’s used and, similarly, the datasets it takes its intelligence from are continuously bolstered with new information from medical journals and guidance from the WHO and other agencies of global recognition. This means the outcomes become more and more accurate over time and in line with the advice a doctor would give.

The use of such a tool provides benefits for all. Doctors have all the information they need on the patient before they’ve even laid eyes on them and with the solution triaging the individual, they also know how serious the issue may be.

For the patient, access to such an accurate symptom checking solution means they don’t have to turn to the internet. With listings based on SEO, individuals who search the web are probably causing themselves unnecessary worry – which can have a further detrimental impact on health.

Moreover, if AI triages a patient and advises them to stay home and self-care, it means that they are unlikely to visit their healthcare provider which, during a pandemic, is safer for all involved.

What role can the tech giants play?

The big tech companies will play more of a role moving forward. We’re likely to see many headlines in the coming years from the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon around healthtech which shouldn’t come as any real surprise; it’s a crisis-resilient sector that is continuously growing. That being said, the scope and capabilities of such players can help healthcare become more accessible too.

The sad state of affairs is that despite huge healthcare budgets in some countries, healthcare remains unfriendly, inaccessible, and unaffordable for many. With the use of new technology, healthcare can be patient-oriented, continuous, intuitive and, critically, wherever it’s needed. Take banking apps for example, they are designed for customer experience and healthcare services can follow suit. The big tech companies have unparalleled reach and if they can help to bring healthcare to more, then the world can become a more even place. Also, the presence of such firms fuels smaller organizations to innovate in new ways, pushing the industry and capabilities even further.

Streamlined, enhanced and accessible healthcare

2020 has been a strange year but its events have enabled the world to witness the impact technology can have across healthcare. It’s enabled providers to deliver care in new ways and patients across the planet are now experiencing the digital healthcare that’s been predicted for years. As we step into 2021, expect to see more developments as innovation continues to flourish – streamlining and enhancing healthcare, while also making it accessible to more.

Piotr Orzechowski, CEO, Infermedica

Piotr Orzechowski, CEO of Infermedica.