Democratising healthcare with tech

The Business Times by FREDRIK NYBERG

TECHNOLOGY has always been a driving force behind the evolution of healthcare. For decades, the medical technology (medtech) industry has been pioneering innovative solutions for patient diagnosis, monitoring and treatment, from developing life-changing artificial heart valves and prosthetic limbs to surgical lasers and MRI scanners. Despite what many people consider to be a slow-paced industry, healthcare is at the forefront of digital transformation.

What is unique about innovation in healthcare today, however, is the incredible pace of change, and the potential scale of impact for the entire value chain and future generations of patients.

The bold entry of global technology powerhouses such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and IBM has played some part in this shift. Bringing all the agility of the digital industry to the healthcare sector, they are introducing disruptive deep technologies such as virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI). But the Asia-Pacific is also emerging as a hotbed for healthcare innovation, with startups producing cutting-edge technologies and competing with well-established healthcare and technology companies.

Digital technologies of any form require investment, and for them to have an impact in real-life settings it is important to understand the value proposition. So how can patients benefit from these new technologies, and how can healthcare systems be convinced to buy into them?

Going digital - a solution for scale and democratisation

Digital solutions are often highly scalable which, over the long-term, should reduce hospital expenditures and help healthcare systems manage their limited resources more effectively.

In Singapore, for example, leading hospital Tan Tock Seng has built a pioneering "artificial brain" which, according to the hospital's COO Dr Jamie Lim, "combines all of the expertise and considerations of nursing, medical and operations, and comes up with the best recommendation on the bed to be allocated". High bed occupancy rates and resource shortages are issues for the hospital - challenges which will only increase with Singapore's ageing population - but the technology is allowing hospital staff to spend more of their time providing quality care.

The other major benefit of digital innovation is its potential to democratise healthcare.

In a healthcare setting, AI typically involves a combination of data analytics with an ability to predict patient outcomes and make recommendations on treatment plans. Any socio-economic factors that might be linked to clinical decisions are removed from the outset, stripping healthcare back to what it is all about - treating ill health. The high accuracy of AI also mitigates the risk of human error.

Digital technology can also expand the reach of service provision - an important concern for healthcare systems in Asia where patient "access" is a hot topic. There are still vast disparities across the region in terms of the healthcare service patients receive, even within the same country, usually due to poor infrastructure, lack of medical expertise in remote communities and overcrowding in urban hospitals.

Earlier this year, Indonesia's largest healthcare group, Siloam Hospital Group, announced a new partnership with BookDoc - an online platform which connects patients to healthcare professionals. Through this new technology, Siloam Hospital Group aims to provide access to high-quality and affordable healthcare all across Indonesia, to all socio-economic backgrounds.

GPs in remote communities could also leverage digital technologies to provide high-quality care from their clinics. They could carry out tests and share the results virtually with healthcare specialists based anywhere in the world. This would be particularly empowering for patients in less developed countries, as they could benefit from world-class expertise they would not have received otherwise. Mobile technology could also provide an accessible platform for healthcare professionals across the world to collaborate and offer insights and advice on complicated health cases.

The power of mobile

Cardiologist Eric Topol was one of the first to explore the role of mobile technology in making healthcare more inclusive. In his 2015 book The Patient Will See You Now, he describes a future state where patients will have more control by accessing healthcare solutions from their smartphones. In Dr Topol's view, this will lead to the end of "medical paternalism" - where patients are denied from making choices about their health.

mHealth - wearable and mobile technologies that deliver healthcare solutions directly to the patient - is now a growing trend in Asia. This is partly due to the widespread availability of smartphones, along with their rapidly increasing digital capabilities.

A number of new health apps were launched last year in Singapore alone, including Breatherite, which uses augmented-reality technology to address misuse of asthma inhalers; and NBuddy, developed by a National University Hospital dietitian to help overweight or obese Singaporeans manage their food intake.

The additional return benefit for the healthcare industry is that these platforms can collect patient data, which in the long run will help us better understand diseases and how patients respond to treatments.

Innovating together to balance tech with patient safety

Much has changed since Dr Topol wrote about the power of mobile technology, and the future state he describes is not far off. But can technology ever be as reliable as a doctor, and how do we adapt current regulations at the speed technology is moving to ensure patient safety?

As we have seen with other industries disrupted by groundbreaking technologies, the ramifications for healthcare legal systems, regulators and insurers are inevitable and must be managed carefully.

Last month, Babylon Health, a medical app which has acquired over 2.5 million users, was in the spotlight after doctors found faults in the diagnostic process and regulators issued concerns. As hospitals become even more stretched, it is likely that more digital solutions will be introduced to address the burden - and the entire system must be ready for this.

To fully leverage digital technology, the medtech industry, healthcare providers and decision-makers must work alongside one another, collaborate and innovate together.

Regardless of the inevitable hurdles the medtech industry will face navigating this new era in healthcare, what we can be sure of is that digital technology will benefit millions of patients and help create a more inclusive system. Digital technology has democratised travel, transportation, commerce and communication, and will do the same for healthcare.

At the annual Asia Pacific MedTech Forum from Oct 9-11, 2018, APACMed will bring together over 700 leaders from the global and regional medtech industry along with healthcare professionals, providers and decision-makers to explore how we can collaborate and use technology to its full advantage to empower patients and improve healthcare service delivery.

  • Fredrik Nyberg is chief executive officer of the Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association (APACMed)