ccording to the United Nations, by 2050 the demographic shift will lead to 1.5 billion people being aged above 65. This will require the healthcare system to cover more multimorbidity diseases and elderly care, in addition to its already daunting tasks. Global healthcare costs have been at $7.7 trillion in 2017 and are predicted to reach $10 trillion in 2022.

Additional trends of increasing population, higher life expectancy, environmental changes, health inequities, obesity, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), major disease outbreaks, and financial pressure on welfare systems put further tension on the current healthcare system. All these factors lead to complex and multifaceted challenges, which can only be addressed in a coordinated approach by involving all stakeholders. At the same time, with the emergence of digitization, new technologies, and applications are becoming available that can help address some of the pressing issues.

What needs to be done to harvest the full potential of these emerging technologies and applications?

The first step is a patient-centric, secure, and digitally connected healthcare network. Switzerland aims to reach this goal with several national initiatives including the Swiss Personalized Health Network (SPHN) and the Electronic Patient Record (EPD). The goal is to connect all healthcare stakeholders—including research institutions—and enable the exchange of data to foster collaboration, innovation, and effective healthcare. These efforts will lay the foundation for a national healthcare network.

In our interconnected world where 58% of the world population has access to the internet, technology can help reduce the immense burdens on the healthcare system. The World Health Organization estimates a global shortage of 4.3 million healthcare workers. For instance, telehealth can help alleviate physicians’ shortage and meet increased patient demand, especially in remote areas where the shortage is acute. Remote areas and underserved regions can easily be covered via telemedicine applications reducing travel and hospitalization time.

Telemedicine can also be of great value to optimize access and improve the success rate of treatments in central areas. According to the Harvard Business Review and Accenture, virtual health can help save up to USD $10 billion in the U.S. alone, if used for just three cases: the annual patient visit, ongoing patient management, and self-care. Many doctors’ visits, including patient monitoring and medication adherence, can be covered via teleconsultations, reducing the tension on the institutions` limited onsite capacities. The technology and applications are available today.  

ICT stakeholders are rushing into the healthcare sector and heavily investing in digital health solutions including digital coaches and trackers. The Mayo Clinic in the U.S., for example, is piloting Sensely, a decision support coach that collects data from wearables and sensors and analyzes it for the physician before the patient visit. Proteus developed the first-ever FDA approved “digital pill” containing an ingestible microsensor, which collects data during chemotherapy to increase adherence and outcome. Swiss-based SOPHiA GENETICS leverages the power of AI and data to improve treatment and various medical applications and is used by close to 1000 hospitals worldwide. Other examples include smart lenses, pacemakers, and other implanted or ingested devices that can collect data and notify doctors at the right time to intervene. However, for all these to work properly, there is a need for a stable and highly secure platform, as the foundation for the new applications.

Processes and operations need to be automated to free medical doctors and personnel to focus on delivering patient care. Time-consuming activities like tracking medical equipment, wheelchairs or even patients and doctors can be optimized by current IoT or location-based solutions. Simple sensor-based solutions can help reduce the waiting time of patients when they arrive or when certain results are available. Room cleaning as well as monitoring the current condition of medical equipment can be automated to only intervene when needed after a notification.        

However, privacy concerns and cybersecurity threats in the healthcare environment are real. According to the HIPAA Healthcare Data Breach Report, more than 38 million individuals` healthcare records have been compromised in 2019 in the US alone. In this regard, every health worker with access to medical data must have a proper education in cybersecurity and privacy. Another famous case dates back to 2013, when Vice President Dick Cheney`s Wi-Fi-connected pacemaker was removed and replaced without Wi-Fi out of fear of hackers. An educated workforce in cybersecurity and the right security solutions can help reduce risks of breaches.

The healthcare ecosystem is as complex as a Swiss watch, with many players, and many interests. One of the key drivers in healthcare today is technology. While it might not solve all above-mentioned problems, it can bring along new approaches. Combined with innovation, an enabled and educated workforce, a common vision, a national strategy aligned with global developments, and cross stakeholder collaboration technology can contribute to reducing the immense pressure on the healthcare system.

Garif Yalak
Garif Yalak is Head of Digital Transformation Healthcare and Education, Country Digital Acceleration at Cisco Switzerland.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.