Beyond telehealth: The future of healthcare technology

Fred Huet, Partner at Altman Solon, outlines the key areas where digital transformation is driving the future of healthcare

In the last decade, we have seen an ongoing evolution in the healthcare technology market. Where the market was once dominated by companies creating consumer electronics devices and lifestyle apps – think health and fitness trackers and smartwatches – we are now beginning to see a shift towards companies driving a wider digital transformation of global healthcare systems. Longer-term cycles of innovation and concerns around protection of private data and other sensitive information have slowed progress towards mainstream digitisation compared to other sectors. Now that larger players in the healthcare space are beginning to adopt technological solutions in a more active way, we will start to see a realisation of the transformative potential of healthcare technology.

Because of Covid-19, there has been an accelerated shift away from ‘face-to-face’ appointments towards ‘FaceTime-to-FaceTime’ consultations. Telehealth has been a vital and necessary step to preventing the spread of the virus in doctors’ offices and may well remain a feature of post-pandemic healthcare as patients grow more accustomed to the convenience of remote consultations and other telehealth services. We could see a consolidation in future around making use of already established messaging and video-calling applications, rather than separate bespoke applications for telehealth services, as hospitals, clinicians, and even patients grow more confident with telehealth procedures and more trusting of the security offered by existing solutions.

But the role of technology in the healthcare sector goes beyond telehealth to encompass a much wider-scale digital transformation. We are seeing signs of a digital wave moving across the healthcare sector – hospitals, clinics, general practices and even care homes in the UK and Europe. This is happening at a fundamental level with lots of investment facilitating the adoption of IT systems for things like storing and processing patient records and optimising doctors’ timetables. Technology is driving efficiencies in terms of admitting and managing patients both in and out of hospitals, and also managing the link between hospitals, clinics, and other areas of the health service. This allows for greater expediency and assurance when, for example, reimbursing the cost of particular medical procedures performed outside of a nationalised health service.

When it comes to the widespread digitisation of patient records in global healthcare systems, there have been two major obstacles: cautious attitudes and outdated IT systems. People tend to question the need to upgrade digital systems when the ones they are using aren’t broken. Often there is further hesitancy around migrating patient records because of the fear of losing or corrupting data if there is a problem. This fear is not entirely unfounded, of course, but it also serves as a recipe for doing nothing.

In the UK, we are seeing the first signs of a shift, with new systems beginning to enable the sharing of information and data within the same group of hospitals in some areas of the country. It is a start, but there is some understandable caution about taking the next step and increasing access to patient records cross-practice and in different regions of the country. A ‘big bank’ approach with a central repository of data for each healthcare practice to access when required poses potential cybersecurity problems, with the ‘weakest link’ in the chain putting the whole system at risk if flaws were to be breached. In fact, several U.S. hospital systems were recently hit by mysterious cybersecurity attacks that have shut down digital medical records systems, preventing access to critical medical data often for weeks.

There is also a challenge to be addressed around regulation. Governments need to spend time reviewing what is legally possible for hospitals to do in terms of storing and sharing patient records – there is little point in investing in enhanced digital systems that enable digital data transfer if they do not have the legal right to do so.

Digital transformation is happening at different rates across the world. Singapore and some countries in the Middle East are already fairly advanced, while much of Europe is currently a bit further behind. But the evolution is ongoing, and moving in the right direction. It’s also clear that widescale digital transformation in healthcare will occur in multiple phases, and the process begins with initial steps towards upgrading legacy mainframe systems. As soon as hospitals and clinics start upgrading to systems that have been coded in today’s world as opposed to yesterday’s, it will be possible – perhaps even fairly natural – for them to then begin leveraging more innovative technologies in future.


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