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A good dose of digital is what healthcare needs

THE health of Singaporeans was one of the topics in the Prime Minister's 2017 National Day Rally speech. Lee Hsien Loong touched on the growing epidemic of diabetes in the nation and how it will affect the quality of lives for citizens. The disease is "invisible", showing few symptoms in its early stages. However, down the road, it can cause numerous problems such as heart attacks, strokes, kidney failures and blindness.

Singapore's situation is just one out of numerous healthcare challenges throughout the region.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for more than half of all deaths in South-east Asia. This comes up to some eight million people per year. Increasing longevity, urbanisation and poor lifestyle choices all contribute to the rising trend.

At the same time, specific illnesses such as dengue fever and Sars continue to haunt the region.

Healthcare impacts are not just physical and emotional. They cause financial strains as well. In Asia, medical costs are projected to increase by around 10 per cent this year, driven by cancer claims and circulatory diseases. Countries most badly hit include India (14.0 per cent), Malaysia (12.7 per cent) and the Philippines (11.1 per cent).

These external factors will put more pressure on healthcare organisations, which face a set of issues on their own. Manpower is still a problem for several countries, such as Singapore. As the population ages rapidly and more suffer chronic ailments, the nation will require 30,000 more healthcare workers by 2020. In the face of rising healthcare demands from patients, healthcare organisations like hospitals will find it a struggle to keep up.

DIGITAL TREATMENT TO THE FORE

In light of these developments, the power of digital has opened up numerous options for treating these ailments. 451 Research and CenturyLink say 34 per cent of healthcare organisations have reported major digital disruption in the healthcare sector in the past three years. When it comes to expecting disruption in the future, 42 per cent believe that the impact of digital technologies will increase in the coming three years.

A significant number of healthcare organisations are already digitising to meet the evolving healthcare landscape. Roughly 56 per cent said they already have a formal strategy for digital transformation and are actively digitising their organisational processes. About 23 per cent are doing so as well, but via siloed projects.

The numbers reinforce the fact that disruption is being used as a force for good in the healthcare sector. Across the board, digital technologies are being used to enhance the quality of care, improving internal processes and making lives easier for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers.

THE FOUR DIGITAL ANTIDOTES

Healthcare organisations that are transforming have prioritised four goals: improving operational efficiency, enhancing the patient experience, improving agility and managing risks.

With the abundance of data made available by digital records, connected healthcare machines and devices, healthcare providers are quickly recognising an opportunity to understand their patients and diagnose operational issues better. Digital capabilities have become the new "support staff" in wards, emergency rooms and operating theatres.

By collecting data and turning them into insights, healthcare employees can make real-time decisions to avoid adverse events and prevent errors. Clinicians can ascertain who is in most need of immediate care, what beds are available and rapidly identify the right treatment for a particular patient.

In order to accommodate new services and sustain growing demands, healthcare organisations are enhancing IT agility by modernising IT for availability, speed and resilience. This is to enable fast communications, 24/7 availability, secure access and patient-centric approaches.

One of the potential results of becoming more agile is improved collaboration. In light of Asia's ageing populations, the need for holistic care has increased. Care must now be extended to home or specialised facilities. Improved agility will allow integration across distributed health and social care systems, which will enhance services across the entire ecosystem.

Patient care is also being redefined. In mature economies, digital technologies have raised patients' expectations of what they want from a healthcare provider. Now, hospitals must offer services beyond just care, but also a conducive environment that makes patients' stays enjoyable. Simple conveniences like Wi-Fi connectivity can go a long way to make a patient feel at home and keep in touch with his or her loved ones.

Meanwhile, healthcare employees can be equipped with connected devices in order to serve patient needs faster and better. Self-service options have also become increasingly popular, facilitating processes such as discharges.

Risk is top of mind in any healthcare operation. Patients face situations such as medication errors, allergies and hospital-acquired infections. Dangers also exist in the digital realm. Ransomware attacks such as Petya and WannaCry have demonstrated what can happen to healthcare organisations if they do not secure their patients' data.

The WannaCry attack, in particular, affected Indonesian hospitals, severely disrupting patient-care operations. When transforming digitally, healthcare organisations need to keep vigilant and apply a multi-layered security approach to protect patients' sensitive information.

Meanwhile, technology can be applied to streamline workflows, such as efficient ordering systems for medications and supplies, barcode medication administration systems and electronic health records.

THREE QUESTIONS TO ASK

In order to move forward in their digital transformations, healthcare organisations have to keep a few elements in mind. When transforming, they can ask themselves the following questions to diagnose gaps and guide them on their digital journeys:

  • Can my organisation integrate data effectively?

With exploding volumes and accessibility to data, there is no lack of availability of information. The only question is, can the organisation extract actionable insights? Healthcare providers need to find ways to integrate data from multiple sources - from wards and operating theatres to finance and human resources. Only by pulling data together and consolidating it into one source can healthcare organisations start mining it to improve processes. With a single source of truth, they can leverage data analytics to understand patients' behaviours and needs to respond with effective services and treatments.

  • Is my organisation making full use of technology to maximise care?

A good digital foundation will allow organisations to start exploring innovative technologies such as Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality. Critical sensor systems can be embedded into all aspects of a healthcare IT system, creating a truly connected environment.

The power of machine learning can also be applied to diagnose ailments or conditions that are otherwise invisible to human practitioners. Meanwhile, augmented reality technologies can deliver immersive training scenarios to add value to medical lessons.

  • Is my organisation leveraging the cloud?

The cloud is key to any digital transformation. It provides the capabilities, flexibility and scalability that enable organisations to provide the relevant IT support to power patient-facing services.

The growing amount of data, increasing patient demands and new services will add pressure to existing IT systems. Hence, healthcare organisations need all the computing power, storage and infrastructure resources they can get.

The cloud can alleviate several IT and cost pressures via services such as managed hosting. To ease the transition, about 44 per cent of healthcare organisations have shown interest in working with cloud providers; 58 per cent said they wanted to partner IT service providers.

SMARTER, HEALTHIER FUTURES

As countries like Singapore advance towards becoming Smart Nations, healthcare players should look into digital technologies to unlock more avenues for patient-centric operations.

It is crucial at this turning point to use digital capabilities to drive operational efficiency, patient experiences, improved agility and reduced risk. This will not only help meet patient demands of today but also raise resilience against the evolving healthcare challenges of tomorrow.

  • The writer is managing director for the Asia-Pacific at CenturyLink