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Silos will prevent digital healthcare reaching its full potential

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Rather than replicating existing healthcare systems, we face an opportunity to re-imagine the patient experience for better outcomes; writes HealthHero founder & CEO, Ranjan Singh.

The great promise of digital technology was breaking down barriers to access. Access to knowledge, entertainment, communication, even money.

In healthcare, we’ve seen this in action; greatly accelerated by the events of this year. During the UK’s lockdown, HealthHero witnessed a 300% increase in demand for remote GP consultations.

However, if we’re to fulfil the promise of convenience that digital offers, healthcare faces a very specific challenge: silos.

Historically, healthcare systems have been built through specialisation. This has accelerated break-throughs in many areas and helped improve patient outcomes with single diseases and routine care.

Yet, the weaknesses of these healthcare systems are exposed when it comes to problems that cut across several areas, something that is not an anomaly. A recent study in Scotland, published in The Lancet, found that 23 percent of Scottish people have multimorbidity, a percentage that increases as people age.

In a highly specialised healthcare system, patients with multiple chronic conditions have a highly fragmented patient journey, consisting of different appointments, referrals, consultations and treatments.

Quite often, these systems result in ineffective care because, as we discover more about our own bodies, we find that conditions in one part of the body are often connected to something that’s going on in another part of the body. Or even in the mind.

And in the world of digital healthcare, we face a further challenge. Each of these fractured pieces of the patient journey generates its own health record.

According to recent projections the amount of global healthcare data is expected to increase dramatically by the end of 2020. Early estimates from 2013 suggest that there were about 153 exabytes of healthcare data generated in that year. However, projections indicate that there could be as much as 2,314 exabytes of new data generated in 2020 alone.

Herein lies the danger for digital healthcare. Much of the innovation coming to patients today is based on mimicking the existing systems. Apps and services for specific ailments are coming to market. There are different technologies for patient records and prescriptions, just as there are in the real-world.

This leads to problems. Historically a lack of collaboration within telehealth has exacerbated these issues, involving various integrating platforms and practitioners.

The solution – holistic digital healthcare

If healthcare is to realise the promise of digital technology, it needs to go beyond what already exists.

Rather than simply replicating what we have, we should be building a digital healthcare world that forges greater collaboration from the start; one that considers the whole person rather than focusing on one area of health or treatment.

Remote digital healthcare may be the answer to many of the medical needs of the population right now, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that there is a real opportunity for us to change healthcare provision as a whole rather than treating issues in isolation from each other.

Not only has the pandemic changed the landscape of healthcare it has also had a huge impact on people’s health, and I’m not just talking about the effects of contracting Covid-19.

Many factors impact health – job insecurity, stress, anxiety, isolation – all of which are heightened right now. Holistic healthcare looks at the whole, interrelating picture of a person’s health and treats the ‘whole patient’.

For instance, one patient’s musculoskeletal health concerns could have an impact on other areas of their body, or indeed their mental health; or one patient’s asthma could be linked to their eczema and vice versa so treatment for each should be considered in relation to each other.

In building digital healthcare solutions, we should seek to build a holistic view of our patient’s health, provide treatment for the ‘whole patient’, and keep the data securely in a place that can be accessed only by the patient and the practitioners who need it.

It’s tempting to zero in on how technology can enable the holistic healthcare approach but we need to bear in mind that for solutions like this to be truly successful digital innovation and convenience must be used in conjunction with human expertise and compassion, the compassion that is so native to the healthcare profession.

As our current context drives patients to adopt new digital healthcare services, we face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine a system of healthcare. One that truly improves accessibility and services for the future, while creating better patient outcomes.

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