A generation of astonishing medical advances has created a seismic shift in life expectancy across most of the world and placed healthcare on a cliff edge of jeopardy: we can cure most things but can we afford to?
How healthcare technology progresses in the next decade could decide if health systems fall and how far they drop.
Feverish activity, from laboratories, workshops, investment hothouses and kitchen table planning are providing innovative counterbalances but the scale is daunting: United Nations statistics predict that the number of people in the world aged over 60 will grow by 56 percent, from 901 million to 1.4 billion by 2030.
By 2050 – within a generation – that will have doubled to 2.1 billion.
There are not enough physicians to cope with the biblical tide of patients. There is not enough money to conventionally treat such a massive cohort of people who are more prone to sickness but will have higher expectations about the quality of their lives.
Enter healthcare tech. Smart, intelligent, fast and cheap. Just as Uber is viewed as a solution to tardy taxis and erratic public transport so there must be an Uber for healthcare, say many.
“Healthcare is way more complex that getting from A to B,” Dr. Lloyd Humphreys, of Patients Know Best (PKB). “Uber is a great exemplar of delivering a service in a much more efficient and convenient way that puts the user in control. This can be mirrored across many sectors and can be seen in the vast majority of e-commerce. The outcome is measured in black and white terms – did it (quite literally) deliver.
“In healthcare, the service aspect is essential, i.e. getting quick access to healthcare, but more fundamental is also the relationship, the quality of the experience – both actual and emotional. The relationship is critical and should never be underestimated. In a recent study by Cancer Research UK, more than 40 per cent of patients say that getting an appointment with their usual doctor is the reason for the delays in seeing a GP in order to have an appointment with their usual doctor. There is the level of trust and understanding that is critical to the interaction, not just simply the speed and ease of interaction.”
Humphreys, a clinical psychologist and innovator, has helped PKB build a reputation for excellence in providing better services by allowing patients to hold and control their medical information. This new brand of patient-doctor relationship has been taken up by 80 NHS sites which report fewer delays, less duplication of tests and appointments and a faster route to diagnosis and treatment along with a reduction of emergency admissions.
“Digital services need to not only improve the efficiency of service delivery but also to foster and enhance the relationship and interaction between patient and healthcare professional,” he adds. “This is why an Uber for healthcare is not as straightforward as in other sectors, and why there is a large number of health and wellbeing apps that tackle one or either of these aspects.
“An Uber in healthcare is gong to be very difficult to find unless you can match service delivery with relationship building.
“PKB attempts to address efficiency and convenience, but also promote the collaboration, interaction and relationship between doctor and patient.
“It is quicker and more fulfilling for a patient because they don’t necessarily have to take a day off work to sit in a waiting room just for a clinician to ask them how they are doing. The physician has face-to-face appointments with only those that really need them so it drives efficiency for the professionals and empowers patients to manage their own care remotely at home and collaborate with their health professionals in a timely fashion.”
Funds are flooding in with this year’s health tech investment expected to top $6 billion and be followed by 16 per cent growth over the next two years with data analytics and the predictive analytics of healthcare data leading the beauty parade.
Health tech is making a difference – PKB has made serious improvements from outpatients to acute services – but Humphreys cautions that a more open NHS system is needed to take advantage of digital benefits.
“The danger we have is that we could be making the same mistakes of the clinician-facing system which tends to have silos and bits of information contained in different places,’ he says. “We need to link those up and have that information in one place, a single source of truth, for each individual that is owned by the patient.”
Shifting the NHS and a generation of expectation, fostered by the excellence of NHS care since its inception in 1948, is not going to be easy. The Department of Health’s 5 Year Forward plan shows the political will to move forward but the NHS – with its cumbersome organization and 1.7 million workforce – moves with a heavy tread. “The Department of Health has a ‘digital by default’ agenda but that is not trickling down to the frontline,” adds Humphreys.
“The question often asked by healthcare providers is why they should use a patient-controlled record and not ‘why they shouldn’t’. The nature of the conversation needs to change along with the incentive to do so.
“Often organizations are financially incentivized to continue with the status quo as there are tariffs and other payment mechanisms that providers of care need to satisfy – the implementation of digital services can impact upon this only if they are part of these reimbursement mechanisms.”
PKB has been trading for six years and Humphreys has some world wisdom for other start-ups entering the exciting arena of healthcare tech.
“There are many bumps in the road but we have got beyond start-up phase by being careful about our commercialisation and, ultimately, who is the customer involved with the product or solution,” he says. “Often when we think about patient engagement, we focus on a commercialisation model that benefits the patients but it might be the hospitals that are paying so we have to look at how the hospitals or the healthcare professionals can benefit as well. So, who is paying, what are they paying for and what is the value of the service you provide?
“Just doing something because it is the right thing to do doesn’t necessarily provide the value required to scale up a really great idea.”
Don’t bank on an Uber for healthcare any time soon. It is too complex to be a faceless on-demand service but a new breed of care is coming where the power of technology and the potency of human care will revolutionize future health.