Digital transformation and the future of healthcare
For many years, ‘healthtech’ was, in essence, a series of consumer electronics devices and lifestyle apps. The popularity of smartwatches and downloadable health and fitness trackers certainly shows no signs of slowing down – they continue to play an important role in terms of increasing understanding and changing habits around areas such as personal health, fitness and nutrition.
In the last decade, though, we have seen evidence of a more widespread shift in the broader healthcare technology sector. The market is evolving, and we are now beginning to see a more defined pattern of companies driving a wider digital transformation of global healthcare systems. Because larger players in the healthcare space are beginning to adopt technological solutions in a much more active way, we will begin to see a realisation of the much more transformative role that technology has to play in global healthcare systems.
One very obvious example in the past year has been the rise of telehealth, with an accelerated shift away from ‘face-to-face’ appointments towards ‘FaceTime-to-FaceTime’ consultations as a result of the pandemic. But it is important to note that digital transformation on a much larger scale is afoot, with significant changes beyond telehealth that could stand to revolutionise the organisation, operation, and delivery of healthcare soon.
As healthcare professionals and patients alike grow more confident with telehealth procedures and more accustomed to the convenience of remote consultations, we are also seeing signs of a simultaneous, larger digital wave moving across the broader healthcare sector – from hospitals and clinics to general practices and even care homes. This is happening at a fundamental level with significant investment allowing for the adoption of IT systems for things like storing and processing patient records and optimising clinicians’ timetables.
Technology is driving efficiencies for admitting and managing patients both in and out of hospitals, and also managing the link between hospitals, clinics, and other areas of the health service. This allows for greater expediency and assurance when, for example, reimbursing the cost of a particular procedures performed outside of a nationalised health service.
Digitising patient records
A key area where we will continue to see development across global healthcare systems is the digitisation of patient records. In the past, there have been two major obstacles preventing widespread digital transformation here: cautious attitudes and outdated IT systems. People tend to question the need to upgrade digital systems when the ones they are currently using are not broken. Often there can be additional hesitancy around migrating patient records because of the fear of losing or corrupting data if there is a problem. This fear is certainly not unfounded, though it does serve as a recipe for doing nothing.
Progress here is happening at different rates across the world. In the UK, for example, we are seeing the first signs of this shift in a small number of areas of the country, with new systems enabling the sharing of information and data within the same group of hospitals. This is a start, but understandably, there is some caution about the next step, which would be to increase access to patient records cross-practice and in different regions of the country. Certainly, a ‘big bank’ approach with a central repository of data for each healthcare practice to access when required may pose potential cybersecurity risks – one flawed link could put the entire system under threat if it were to be breached.
There are also regulatory challenges to address. Governments must take the time to review what is legally possible for hospitals to do in terms of storing and sharing patient data, as there would be little point in investing in enhanced digital systems that enable digital data transfer if they do not have the legal right to do so.
A new model
Governments also face the question of how much public money to invest in upgrading these systems to pave the way for future innovations. France is probably one of the more advanced nations in Europe in part because clinics can take advantage of a government grant every two years to upgrade their IT systems. France has also seen a sustained drive to implement a digitised reimbursement system for doctor’s appointments. In the French system, everyone has a unique digital identification, and following an appointment the patient swipes their personal card to get the cost reimbursed. This has been a good way of being able to centralise data in a more secure way.
It may also lead to an interesting new model for some global healthcare markets in future. In countries where people often don’t have a dedicated GP practice and where the national healthcare infrastructure operates on a much more semi-private model, technology could enable a shift towards a particularly interesting new model of service. There are a wide variety of digital tools and applications that can manage an entire small general practice or private clinic and help them run more smoothly and efficiently.
Because these applications have so much visibility across patients, there is a future where they might also function as lead generation for specialists in particular fields. In this hypothetical model, someone who is looking for a doctor in their local area could be presented with information via a platform that tells them which doctor is highly rated for a certain service.
This of course sounds futuristic, and it’s unclear if such a system would ever be implemented. What is clear is that digital transformation is happening at different rates across the world, and that widescale digital transformation in healthcare will occur in multiple phases and will be driven by initial steps towards upgrading legacy mainframe systems. As soon as hospitals and clinics start upgrading to systems that have been coded in today’s world as opposed to yesterday’s, it will be possible – perhaps even fairly natural – for them to then begin considering more innovative systems in future.
Getting ready for cloud data-driven healthcare
As healthcare continues to recognise the value of data and digital transformation, many organisations are relying on the cloud to make their future-forward and data-centric thinking a reality. In fact, the global healthcare cloud computing market was valued at approximately $18 billion and is expected to generate around $61 billion USD by 2025.
At the forefront of these changes is the rapid adoption of cloud-based, or software-as-a-service (SaaS), applications. These apps can be used to handle patient interactions, track prescriptions, care, billing and more, and the insights derived from this important data can vastly improve operations, procurement and courses of treatment. However, before healthcare organisations can begin to dream about a true data-driven future, they have to deal with a data-driven dilemma: compliance.
Meeting regulation requirements
It’s no secret that healthcare is a highly regulated industry when it comes to data and privacy – and rightfully so. Patient records contain extremely sensitive data that, if changed or erased, could cost someone their life. This is why healthcare systems rely on legacy technologies, like Cerner and Epic EHRs, to manage patient information – the industry knows the vendors put an emphasis on making them as secure as possible.
Yet when SaaS applications are introduced and data starts being moved into them, compliance gets complicated. For example, every time a new application is introduced into an organisation, that organisation must have the vendor complete a BAA (Business Associate Agreement). This agreement essentially puts the responsibility for the safety of patients’ information — maintaining appropriate safeguards and complying with regulations — on the vendor.
However, even with these agreements in place, healthcare systems still are at risk of failing to meet compliance requirements. To comply with HIPAA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration 21 CFR Part 11 and other regulations that stipulate the need to exercise best practices to keep electronic patient data safe, healthcare organisations must maintain comprehensive audit trails – something that gets increasingly difficult when data sits in an application that resides in the vendor’s infrastructure.
Additionally, data often does not stay in the applications – instead healthcare users download, save and copy it into other business intelligence tools, creating data sprawl across the organisation and exposing patient privacy to greater risk.
With so many of these tools that are meant to spur growth and more effective care creating compliance challenges, it begs the question: how can healthcare organisations take advantage of the data they have without risking non-compliance?
Yes, healthcare organisations can adhere to regulations while also getting valuable insights from the wealth of data they have available. However, to help do this, organisations must own their data. This means data must be backed up and stored in an environment that they have control over, rather than in the SaaS vendors’ applications.
Backing up historical SaaS application data directly from an app into an organisation’s own secure cloud infrastructure, such as AWS or Microsoft Azure, makes it easier, and less costly, to maintain a digital chain of custody – or a trail of the different touchpoints of data. This not only increases the visibility and auditability of that data, but organisations can then set appropriate controls around who can access the data.
Likewise, having data from these apps located in one central, easily accessible location can decrease the number of copies floating around an organisation, reducing the surface area of exposure while also making it easier for organisations to securely pull data into business intelligence tools.
When healthcare providers have unfettered access to all their historical data, the possibilities for growth and insights are endless. For example, having ownership and ready access to authorised data can help organisations further implement and support outcome-based care. Insights enabled by this data will help inform diagnoses, prescriptions, treatment plans and more, which benefits not only the patient, but the healthcare ecosystem as a whole.
To keep optimising and improving care, healthcare systems must take advantage of new tools like SaaS applications. By backing up and owning their historical SaaS application data, they can do so while minimising the risk to patient privacy or compliance requirements. Having this ownership and access can propel healthcare organisations to be more data-driven – creating better outcomes for everyone.