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New Approaches Needed To Support Digitization Of Healthcare

At the recent HIMSS conference in Helsinki, the breadth of digital solutions promising to transform healthcare was prodigious. What is also sadly evident for any seasoned observer of the sector is that the pace of change remains incredibly slow, and while digital tools have enabled many sectors to do more with less, healthcare remains largely beholden to Baumol's cost disease.

A recent project from the University of Twente suggests that for healthcare to truly achieve the benefits of digitization will require a different approach to transformation.

“Digitization is about more than just the use of technology – above all, it’s about a different way of working, and that requires vision, guts and leadership,” the researchers explain.

Digital care

The promises of digital healthcare are considerable, from the delivery of personalized medicine to a reduction in workload via a more preventative approach to healthcare that could also keep a lid on costs that are continuously escalating. As I argue in another article, the capacity to absorb new technologies is often a limiting factor in a sector that is nearly always stretched to breaking point, even before the pandemic exacerbated matters.

The researchers explored both the research literature and practice to try and identify ways to improve matters and accelerate the digitization of the sector. Central to their recommendations is a more proactive role from the government in driving digitization, with long-term policies needed to help set in motion the process of change. Fundamental to this is a shift in how people in the healthcare sector work.

“One thing that needs to change is how we use personnel”, the researchers explain. “In addition to medical professionals, we must use professionals with a technical-medical background and data analysts.”Fostering innovatio

The researchers argue that a key starting point is for healthcare organizations not to consider digitization as primarily a means of reducing costs. At the moment, they believe that healthcare organizations struggle to justify investing in digitization because it's not clear how they can recoup their costs. This then helps to undermine any willingness to experiment and innovate.

There are also considerable problems in terms of interoperability as few systems seem to work together or indeed exchange information effectively. The adoption of electronic patient records has been a well-known example of a digitization process beset by problems getting systems to talk to one another. Often the fragmented nature of healthcare systems means that each organization goes its own way, which hampers interoperability further.

"The entire global healthcare system had a rude awakening during the pandemic as without interoperability and definitions of data, our ability to collect information and exchange it during the early days of the pandemic was limited," Hal Woolf, President & CEO, HIMSS, explains. "Now we're in a place where people are recognizing the transactional nature of information as a critical dependecy in order for us to be able to look at public health and understand what is transpiring."

Taking charge

The Dutch researchers argue that for things to change, it's vital that the government take charge, as currently there is too large a gap between what government wants and what happens in practice. They believe that a multidisciplinary approach is vital for this gap to be narrowed and digitization supported.

Only by doing this do they believe that things like privacy, security, and inclusiveness can be properly addressed, with these obviously crucial for technologies like AI to make an impact. This could also help in terms of informing citizens of not only the possibilities with the digitization of healthcare but also their rights.

"It's critical that healthcare systems are able to dedicate some level of resources for the implementation of innovations, which should be somewhere between 2 and 5%," Woolf continues. "This is undoutedly a lot, but it sets aside the bandwidth for implementation and establishes a cadence in anticipation of the ongoing nature of change and innovation."

The Dutch team believes that by combining policy, infrastructure, funding, and government power then the digitization of healthcare can occur, with the aim being to ensure that technology is effectively used to ensure that healthcare is not only faster and more efficient but also that continuity and quality of care is maintained.

“The pandemic showed us that many obstacles on the road towards digital care could be overcome in a short period of time," the researchers conclude. “But still, the implementation of many digital applications is lagging behind. We need a change in culture, digital literacy training, and better long-term funding to ensure that digitization has a lasting impact on healthcare.”

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