Australia’s healthcare digital system faces some daunting challenges over the coming years and decades.
With an ageing population and rising incidences of chronic disease, current healthcare resources and funding models are already buckling under the strain, demanding that policy makers and health professionals develop new ways of thinking and problem-solving.
According to Philips Australia and New Zealand managing director, Kevin Barrow the immediate challenge facing healthcare systems is how to develop proactive, rather than reactive, approaches to patient care.
Typically, the older people get the greater the chances they will require hospitalization when they are ill. This is one of the biggest cost burdens on Australia’s healthcare system, while the rising incidences of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease across the board, put further pressure on the system.
Data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, and other sources, reveals that in developed countries, as little as three per cent of patients are deemed sufferers of chronic disease. Yet this group uses up to half the available healthcare resources.
This should come as a wake-up call for Australia’s healthcare industry, which has so far been slow to adapt, Barrow says. “Most of our healthcare digital systems haven’t changed in 100 years in terms of how healthcare is delivered.”
Many health facilities and organizations are still bogged down in proprietary legacy systems that can’t talk to each other.
For instance, there are several different imaging and health record systems in Australia, meaning that hospitals and clinicians waste time trying to access patients’ medical histories.
This helps to explain why the fax machine remains an essential – yet extremely wasteful – tool for hospitals and health professionals. Delegates to the recent Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) eHealth Forum in Melbourne, were told that some 1 billion pieces of paper are generated by Australia’s healthcare system each year.
Barrow says that often when patients are admitted to hospital, or visit a doctor, the issue is something that could have been dealt with without a physical consultation, if the right systems were in place.
Strong telehealth – or digital telemedicine platforms – allow patients and doctors to interact and engage remotely. Combined with robust, secure digital systems supporting easy access and sharing of patients’ health records, a picture begins to emerge of a more efficient, cost-effective system able to support true continuity of care.
In mid-2016, Philips published the Future Health Index (FHI), a comparative international study analyzing the readiness of healthcare operators around the world to meet the challenges of the future. Some 200 healthcare professionals, and 2,000 patients were surveyed in Australia.
All respondents revealed a strong desire for systems supporting better interaction and data sharing between doctors and patients. However, the survey also showed there’s quite a long way to go.
Most notably, almost three-quarters (70 per cent) of patients said they were having to repeat information about their health each time they visited a different health professional. Other data revealed frustrations around accessing health records, both for patients themselves and people trying to provide homecare to sick relatives.
As one of the world’s leading providers of healthcare innovation, Philips has been involved in a number of important initiatives helping chronic disease sufferers better manage themselves.
Mid-2016, Philips published the results of a three-year ‘self-supported care’ program involving almost 2,000 patients in UK city Liverpool living with chronic, or long-term conditions (LTCs) including diabetes, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The trial sought to improve patient awareness and emotional well-being by combining innovative telemonitoring equipment with a ‘clinical hub’ and a program of case management, monitoring, education and coaching for patients with varying levels of long-term disease. The results included reductions in emergency admissions and secondary care costs ranging from 22 to 32 per cent.
In late 2014, Philips and US-provider Banner Health, commenced a six-month ‘at-home’ telehealth trial for patients with multiple chronic conditions, which saw a 45 per cent drop in hospitalizations, 32 per cent drop in acute and long-term care costs, and a 27 per cent reduction in the total cost of care.
“One of the key themes we see emerging in the sector is the needs of patients becoming increasingly linked with those of the clinician,” Barrow explains, adding that connected digital tools coupled with improved clinical capabilities are driving better collaboration and improved ways to manage health.
How big data will disrupt the future of digital healthcare
Healthcare is an extremely data-intensive industry, with no one expecting the deluge to abate anytime soon.
Added to the huge volumes of conventional patient information, such as x-rays, CT scans, pathology reports and the like, personal health records will increasingly contain genetic, proteomic, 3D and other complex data sets, in turn bringing the promise of personalized medicine closer to reality.
Massive shared, or ‘cloud’ computing grids are increasingly able to process and correlate these sorts of data sets with those charting family histories, as well as data on drug compounds, allowing clinicians to finely calibrate treatments in ways undreamt of five or 10 years ago.
As one of the leading innovators in the personalized health space, Philips is working with New York cancer specialists, WMC Health, to build a large-scale informatics platform designed to create individually-targeted oncology treatments based on each patients’ specific genome. The solution features Philips’ IntelliSpace Genomics Solution which will integrate large-scale genome analysis with large patient clinical data sets.
As big data technologies continue to improve, the possibilities for developing even deeper insights into the factors influencing human health and our environment appear vast.
For instance, healthcare organizations are now realizing the potential to correlate data on chronic or communicable disease with factors such as geography, climate and pollution, socio economic background, age, ethnicity and family history to develop more targeted, cost-effective and measurable healthcare solutions.
The huge amounts of data already being generated within digital healthcare are set to increase by orders of magnitude over the coming years as the expansion of the Internet of things (IoT) gathers pace, potentially linking billions and billions of electronic devices and sensors.
These digital devices and sensors will generate and share still more data, and with them will come more opportunities for discovery. New and emerging systems will add further impetus, morphing and adapting environments as they evolve.
As one of the world’s leading makers of high-end medical devices and solutions, Philips sees IoT as a critically important driver of healthcare innovation moving forward, with implications at the individual level as well as the macro level helping us develop a better understanding and better strategies to prepare for the healthcare challenges that lie ahead.