A Picture of Health

Technology as the third actor in healthcare consultations

One of the most significant benefits that technology delivers, no matter the industry or organization, is more effective outcomes through the push to innovate and modernize. This raises the question of exactly how technology has helped healthcare systems to react more nimbly to the changing demands of the pandemic.

A conference held by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) in August 2021 offered some answers, leading us to reflect on the role technology has played, and, in the light of the pandemic experience, imagine how healthcare delivery might look in the near future.

Covid-19 Has Accentuated Benefits of Technology in Care Delivery

The content and hybrid format of the HIMSS21 conference were noticeably shaped by Covid-19, with the event held in person in Las Vegas as well as virtually. More than 18,000 participants had registered in the run-up to the conference.

Many speakers talked about how quickly the pandemic significantly increased the use of technology to improve the quality and outcome of healthcare. According to Shafi Ahmed, a digital health futurist, co-founder and chief medical officer of Medical Realities, the pandemic brought about seven to 10 years of innovation in just 12 months, with artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, 5G, genomics, connectivity, interoperability and cloud technology as large forces for change.

What the Pandemic Brought to the Foreground

There was a lot of talk at the event about the numerous issues that Covid-19 has accentuated. One of the central themes was the role of technology: “The pandemic has exemplified the crucial role IT plays in healthcare”, said Ryan Smith, chief information officer at Intermountain Healthcare, echoing the prevailing sentiment that the pandemic has laid bare the benefits of IT. It has enabled rapid changes to ensure care can be delivered where needed and communication can be upheld in a care facility as well as in the care community.

The pandemic has also put a spotlight on the social determinants of health and equity, with the latter also a huge topic at the event. In the US, disparities in healthcare access and outcomes have existed for decades, but the crisis has made those inequities painfully palpable. People have become more aware that agility and innovation are essential to best respond to daily changing clinical and administrative demands, and that healthcare institutions must keep their staff safe, motivated and valued.

The Move to Hybrid and Personalized Care

The healthcare industry has made many adjustments in care delivery since the pandemic hit. Adoption of telemedicine for triaging and online consultations, doctors working from home and even taking virtual rounds on the wards to check up on patients — these are all significant changes to how practitioners deliver care. “Patients are happy to be seen virtually”, finds Mr Ahmed, who sees those virtual rounds as a move toward a model more centred on the patient.

With the rising use of wearable sensors and remote monitoring efforts, we’ve also seen a change in the way chronic diseases are managed, which wouldn’t have been possible without artificial intelligence and machine learning and advanced information communication technology. As a result, the developments of the past 18 months have contributed to the emergence of more seamless care workflows and hybrid care models that combine remote and in-person interactions between patients and caregivers. Often, they also involve a shift from traditional acute care settings to the home or public spaces such as retail outlets.

The exclusion of visitors from hospitals meant that the training of medical staff needed to move from wards into the virtual world. Universities have designed educational courses that include more digital care elements than before, like mixed and augmented reality applications for training purposes.

This all leads to the questions about how enduring these transformations will be and how they affect the way healthcare is delivered in the next five to 10 years.

How Will Healthcare Change?

HIMSS21 offered the space to explore questions about alternative scenarios for patients and caregivers alike — all closely linked to the use of technology. Below are some topics to mull over that will help influence the direction healthcare takes globally.

  • What role do doctors play in the future? Which competences will medical staff need a decade from now in view of the changes in the market and in consumer demand?
  • Technology isn’t a means to replace doctors, but to amplify their capabilities.
  • Digital health will continue to accelerate. As technology becomes an even larger part of healthcare delivery, industry and health systems must ensure it’s user-friendly.
  • Technology has a clear place in the future and caregivers and patients are interested in using it. However, the key is to define the problems to be solved from a healthcare standpoint, rather than starting with the technology.
  • Even as the remedial effects and the growing role of IT in healthcare delivery are acknowledged, like any medication, they can have undesirable side effects. The avalanche of information that IT has helped to produce can be a source of staff burn-out. How do we handle this?
  • Clinicians and nurses need to be trained to use technology that fits into their respective workflows rather than the other way round.
  • What does the hospital of the future look like?
  • What do we mean by ambulatory care and where should those facilities be available?
  • The entire ecosystem will come together — peers, government health systems, industry and patients — to improve cost and quality of care. Access to care must be diverse, inclusive and just.
  • How do we establish health equity?

In our view, healthcare will move to a new level of patient-centricity, which goes much deeper than just being a catchphrase. It will stand for personalization of care, using a multitude of information that influences well-being: people’s genetic information, personal lifestyles, social determinants of health and medical history, among others.

Technology will help this vision come to life by ensuring the appropriate infrastructure and devices are in place and can communicate with each other securely and within the privacy agenda of each country. But this will only happen if technology is able to counterpoise the growing complexity of its tasks with the necessary user friendliness to ensure its application. A tall order, but something the pandemic has taught us is within reach.