Healthcare has been and will continue to be the most critical indicator of our collective advancement as a cognitive species and the one guiding star steering innovation and technology in the right direction.
Every thought or act of beneficial innovation boils down to one thing — will it help save more lives, improve the quality of life, or extend the course of life. As the entire world unites and battles against a common microscopic nemesis, the need for healthcare systems to integrate digital technologies is at an all-time high.
But can this singular step empower us to fight and relinquish the enemy alone? Can AI, cloud-based systems, and telemedicine help soothe from the deep wounds left by the novel coronavirus? And how can the digital transformation of healthcare systems help us be more prepared for future outbreaks?
What exactly is meant by the digital transformation of healthcare systems?
When you take new and upcoming digital technologies (AI, deep learning, Machine learning, etc etc) and integrate them into existing systems — be it transport or entertainment or healthcare or any domain — it becomes what is known as a digitally transformed system.
Digital transformation is not only a competitive advantage but a necessity in the current times. Through this you can either create a new product or modify an existing product line. Forget products, you can even reinvent your organization’s business processes, company culture, and customer experience to meet the ever-changing needs of the market.
Remember, digital transformation is not always about innovating a new product. It can be integrated into ANY existing system or process to drive the output.
Innovations in the healthcare realm have often been a result of fluctuating needs of a burgeoning population, seismic shifts in lifestyle choices, stark socio-economic differences in classes, and rapidly changing patient expectations. However, considering the current times the biggest propeller towards change, innovation, and transformation in healthcare is none other than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before 2020, any improvement in the healthcare processes would easily take months or even years to get implemented. Today, the same shifts can be seen happening over a matter of a few days or weeks.
Right from the hyper-agile development of COVID-19 testing kits to the accelerated search for the elusive vaccine; the giant strides in the healthcare industry have been witnessed in a shockingly narrow time frame. But where does digital technology fit in the pandemic picture?
Reimaging healthcare systems in times of pandemic
The enemy onslaught in question is not restricted just to the international boundaries or among a handful of people. The largely infectious novel coronavirus has now spread to over 188 countries, with over 5.3 million cases tested positive including at least 343,500 deaths, with the USA leading the list in both — the number of cases and the fatalities.
The limited artillery at our disposal — from a high paucity of PPE kits to exponentially shrinking hospital beds in the face of increasing cases — is not enough to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, let alone control other widespread diseases prevalent across the globe.
However, this doesn’t imply that we have reached a point of stagnation from the perspective of innovation. The number of leaps in innovation and technology that we have seen since January 2020 might be, a few experts contend, larger than what has happened in the past two decades.
One thing that has visibly shot-up in the past few months is the use of telemedicine. People are now able to understand the value of online or video consultations with doctors.
In a recent study, the NHS reported that over 1.2 million people in the UK opted for telemedicine services rather than opting for physical visits to the doctor. Today only 7% of cases are ending up becoming face-to-face consultations while the rest are being taken up by virtual/online consultations.
But can every case be taken up and resolved via telemedicine?
In that case, how can digital transformation occur in this critical sector?
Get SMART with digital technologies
Researchers at Deloitte have come up with a unique strategy that can catalyze digital transformation in the healthcare system, known as the SMART. If both patients and healthcare providers are to adopt technology at a large scale, the particular technology MUST meet the criteria enlisted under SMART.
S — Straightforward & easy to use — Tech that comes with minimum hassles and is easy to adopt and/or can be seamlessly integrated with current clinical systems. Eg: Wearables & mobile devices and teleconsultation.
M — Measurable impact — The tech must lead to measurable improvements in the efficiency of healthcare systems inevitably leading to improved patient health. Eg: AI and deep learning in the facilitation of clinical decisions and trials.
A — Agile solutions — Agile platforms that can easily be replaced, upgraded, and implemented at a large scale without draining away financial resources. Eg: Digital and virtual therapies such as AI cognitive therapy, pain management, etc.
R — Reliant on industrial collaboration — Technology that evolves at the intersection of widespread industrial and academic collaboration. Eg: Robotics, voice recognition, and coding that takes care of repetitive health & disease patterns.
T — Tailored to suit the end user’s needs — Platforms that have been designed keeping end-users in mind thus help to deliver dynamic solutions customized to very specific needs of the users. Eg: AR/VR in clinical trials.
Digital transformation in healthcare, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, must fulfill these criteria to unlock large-scale adoption of technology by both the patients and the healthcare providers.
Interestingly, almost all of the digital innovation in the healthcare realm in the past few months has fulfilled the SMART criteria. From increased adoption of telemedicine to rapid clinical trials — SMART digital tech is at the heart of each.
Designing healthcare systems in the post-pandemic era
In addition to the technological leaps seen in doctor consultations and clinical trials, there are other areas too which require improved and pandemic-relevant changes. Experts believe that fast-tracking changes in the following will help control COVID pandemic spread and hypothetically avert such disasters in the future:
- Greater agility in the way hospitals is built. The focus should be on designs that provide complete protection from the spread of virulent diseases (starting from more and more single occupancy rooms to HVAC systems). One key example to consider here is India’s first hospital dedicated solely to the treatment of COVID patients. This hospital located in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, was set up under the premises of KIMS (Kalinga Institute of Medical Science). With as many as 500 beds (including 42 critical beds), 638 doctors, nurses, and paramedics staff just for COVID control, this hospital was built at breakneck speed to expedite COVID cases treatment. Plans for 36 more such hospitals are to be made functional soon to meet the surging demands.
- Larger integration of critical/intensive care with hospital layout and user experience. This basically refers to how fast a normal hospital bed (or any facility for that matter) can transform into an ICU unit. Hospitals and healthcare providers need to be able to scale up their facilities in a time-sensitive environment. Another major shift in the making is the eICU or virtual ICU where a patient is in his home, intubated with proper nurses and attendees, and while critical care specialists monitor patients remotely. This technology can also offer the opportunity to leverage remote monitoring technology, especially in those areas where there is a lack of skilled doctors and physicians to monitor the patient directly.
- Acceleration of offline & online integration. Virtual care, augmented with AI, is now becoming the first course of action in an increasing number of non-acute cases worldwide. This implies establishing a single digital “front door” of healthcare services which is mostly either an app or a website. This is where the patient journey begins from where the patient is redirected to optimal care settings. Currently, NHS has partnered with a number of digital solutions providers to integrate this technology seamlessly across a wider spectrum of the population.
In short, technological advancements in the form of AI-based diagnostics and clinical trials, cloud-based patient data storage, large-scale integration of information across the entire healthcare continuum.
Digital tools that facilitate better communication between patients and healthcare providers in conjunction with point-of-care devices and home-based monitoring devices are going to set course for digital transformation in healthcare systems.
How can AI and Cloud-computing weaken the COVID blow?
In the war against COVID-19, AI has emerged as the key weapon. This technology which is used to train systems by leveraging big data has enabled pattern recognition, interpretation, and prediction of several key elements included within COVID-19 diagnostics.
Many countries across the globe have started using AI-enabled chest X-Rays and CT scans for accurate COVID-19 diagnosis. These are not only effective as diagnostics tools but also for screening mild cases, triaging new infections, and keeping an eye on severe cases.
A critical aspect that AI tends to ease up is the overload on radiologists who have to manually scan through a number of scans and x-rays every day. With many AI systems reporting COVID-19 diagnosis with accuracy as high as 98%, it can be safe to assume that this technology is going to redefine diagnostics in other healthcare areas too in the coming years.
Only cloud computing platforms provide the required flexibility and accessibility to such staggering amounts of data.
Scaling on-premises is impossible
Traditional healthcare centers are limited by their existing IT infrastructure. With distributed cloud computing data, thousands of healthcare centers get access to critical health data increasing transparency and data sharing for the benefit of all.
With shared access to patient data one thing that gets resolved instantaneously is the hassle of transferring the patient data to a new provider every time the patient visits one. Another benefit is that a shared pool of health data can empower researchers to streamline their processes effectively removing bottlenecks and redundancies.
What we are witnessing today is a number of leading cloud-computing companies are lending incredible support towards finding the cure for COVID-19. For example, IBM has made a number of its cloud-based AI research systems available free for medical practitioners and researchers who are working towards COVID drug research.
AWS (Amazon Web Services) announced in late March to provide $20 million in cloud credits, available as part of its AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative, which will subsidize research into diagnostic tools related to COVID-19 testing.
Oracle, too, has joined the list of companies rolling out significant initiatives in finding the cure for coronavirus. Deploying its existing Oracle Clinical Trials Systems to collect information on COVID-19 drug testing and then building the COVID-19 Therapeutic Learning System.
Oracle donated this platform to the US government and declared it free for all researchers. The COVID-19 Therapeutic Learning System serves as a repository of data for all COVID-19 treatments being administered. Armed with these cloud computing resources, Australian researchers are already closing in on a potential coronavirus vaccine candidate.
How to design & promote healthcare systems?
In the wake of the COVID pandemic, both the users and the healthcare providers have now become more open to embracing digital healthcare. Recent statistics show that 60% of millennials expect and support telehealth to replace in-house doctor visits. 74% said that they are open to virtual health while a whopping 83% found telehealth services to provide good quality healthcare services.
To capture the attention of a larger demographic and facilitate widespread adoption these digital healthcare systems need to have the right design and branding approach to resonate with the target demographic — the millennials. These pointers can help
- From online chats to UX that integrates seamlessly with a patient’s behavior, lifestyle, and habits, digital healthcare services have to be designed for a much deeper impact. The aim of the platform design should be to remove friction and encourage more people to opt for virtual consultations and telehealth services.
- Customizable banners, illustrations, motion, and micro-interactions that not only promote digitized healthcare but also aim to dispel myths and misconceptions.
- These platforms should aggressively promote health campaigns, hygiene routines, or steps to be taken in case of an emergency in a highly engaging manner.
- Include more and more self-assessment tests or free screening tools online as these can shed light on what’s happening among the general public and provide insights on how to design and implement public health policies.
- Leverage the potential of automated and AI-based digital channels like chatbots and Facebook Messenger to engage and inform your visitors, collect data, and improve patient care. Especially in times of resource constraints and traffic overload, these channels can come handy.
- The biggest change digital healthcare platforms can bring in the current day is disincentivizing hospital visits for non-emergency patients. For most non-emergency medical cases, teleconsultation can be an effective way to avoid patients visiting hospitals while making sure their illness is not unattended. you can also build helpful customer journeys across multiple channels to promote teleconsultation.
Digital healthcare: Beginning of a new era?
Though it’s unfortunate that it took global pandemic for us to appreciate and prioritize digital healthcare, nevertheless it served as a great wake up call. However, there still lies a number of challenges ahead for the digital transformation of healthcare systems in terms of cybersecurity, constrained budgets, and dominance of legacy technologies.
Investing in a digitally trained workforce and platform is a MUST if this pandemic has to be brought to a halt. How well are established companies and healthcare start-ups able to align and invest in infrastructure will play a pivotal role in facilitating the speed and extent of the digital transformation of healthcare around the world.
As more and more healthcare providers are being forced to turn over to digital platforms, owing to the constraints created by COVID-19, both patients and clinicians are readily accepting the “new normal” of healthcare services, a huge behavioral paradigm shift which will, fortunately, continue even after the corona crisis is over.
Digital transformation of healthcare might look like an added expense today. But in the long run, you must be ensured that this transformation is the one that will end up saving you costs, improving the agility of healthcare services and patient health, and a much-needed overhaul of the healthcare domain.