Giulia Besana
Giulia Besana (Research Analyst, Health Insights)

For decades, healthcare has been seen as an expense rather than an investment. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how poor control and preparedness in terms of sensing and predicting healthcare capabilities can be detrimental to the global economy.

To change this mindset, bridge the digital gap exacerbated by the pandemic and prepare for the challenges ahead, European governments and organisations are stepping up their commitment to digital and expanding their ecosystems. According to IDC, 40% of organisations are operating or planning to operate in an ecosystem to share operational capabilities and expertise, enabling information and data exchange.

A Mindset Change

Portugal, for example, is developing a digital health strategy to accelerate the capabilities and skills required to move from Big Data to smart health. Its efforts are converging to create a sustainable approach to data management in healthcare and other sectors.

The country recently developed its ambitious Health Development Plan that sees health as an engine for innovation, growth and economic development. The plan concentrates on three key areas — clinical trials, essential medicines and medical devices, and innovative medicine and smart health — with a focus on leveraging AI and Big Data.

Some key themes emerged during the 2021 virtual edition of the HIMSS European Health Conference, focusing on addressing the most pressing challenges in digital health:

  1. Data management and sharing within the ecosystem. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of regional and organisational data integration initiatives across public and private players. This massively accelerated as the pandemic hit the region. Fostered by these challenges, the European Commission created a European Health Data Space (EHDS) at the core of a unified European strategy for health data and its use for care, public health, research and more focused, value-based healthcare ecosystems.

The pandemic has highlighted how technological and governance preparedness around the use of data can be crucial to sense, predict and respond to the challenges brought by a health crisis. In this framework, Israel created a predictive model, collecting data from past flu outbreaks and combining it with data from countries that were at the forefront of the pandemic, such as China and Italy. The model enabled the country to identify population segments that were most at risk of adverse medical events from COVID-19 and plan its vaccination campaign accordingly.

  1. New frontiers of intelligence. Boosted by the fast development of new AI capabilities, data has been called the new life blood of health systems. As data gets more personal, there is an increasing need for transparency in the use of data to ensure human centricity as an overarching value.

This sets the foundation to enable the free flow of information and pave the way to new services and tools that will help prepare for the future. As an example of this trend, the ASST Ospedale Niguarda in Milan has created an AI model to classify COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, relying on a data lake that collects CT scans and clinical data.

The open solution is being used to screen patients as they get into the hospital, but it was also developed to identify patients with lung pathologies, supporting epidemiological control over COVID-19 infections for years to come.

  1. Public health tackling health inequalities and vaccination hesitancy. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of healthcare systems in delivering basic health services. It has hindered several UN Global Development Goals, affecting healthcare service delivery at large.

Governments as well as public and private bodies involved in public health have looked at the impact of the pandemic as a potential fuel for inequality and inequity. Working carefully on data quality and equality is key to preventing technology from becoming the first discriminator, enabling organisations to design truly inclusive products and services that are not skewed in favour of short-term profits but rather focus on individual and collective needs at many levels, from digital literacy, to the willingness to use digital for specific services, to social and health needs.

Public bodies and organisations are defining new initiatives to target population needs with digital tools, focusing on literacy and new communication strategies aimed at tackling vaccination hesitancy. Relevant, up-to-date, trustworthy information during a global health crisis is fundamental to drive the right behaviour and effectively manage public health initiatives. However, the proliferation of fake news and misinformation has endangered the efforts of public institutions and has impacted the choices of many citizens worldwide.

  1. People at the centre of the workforce experience. Given increasing rates of burnout among healthcare professionals and growing demand for healthcare services that have been denied during the crisis, a new approach to the healthcare workforce requires putting trust and relationship at the centre of the equation, using technology to design workforce-inclusive models of care. Professionals will need to sit at the decision-making table and be at the centre of organisational transformation efforts, making sure their perceived value is reflected in the overall enterprise strategy and translated into efficient operations.

To become advocates of the transformation journey, healthcare professionals need to see the tangible value of digital and perceive technology as a foundational pillar and game changer for their daily work scenarios. The case of Doctors Without Borders highlights how learning and training opportunities can be developed with the available digital tools in remote locations with lack of resources. Project TEMBO, by Médecins Sans Frontières (MFS), was designed to enable people to use their mobile phones, connect to WiFi in a hospital or other connected facilities, download relevant content and access it offline.

  1. Patient experience and the digital front door. Improvements in patient engagement platforms will focus on the “digital front door” model, in which digital is the foundation of all interaction touchpoints between patients and providers across the journey. The focus of the digital front door to scale capacity beyond the physical walls of the organisation requires a paradigm shift in data sharing that will push interoperability and data integration to support integrated care initiatives.

This will realise value for patients, regardless of where they are in their journey and where they seek care from. Germany’s DiGA Project (“Digitale Gesundheitsanwendungen”) is an example of the use of approved digital health applications to support the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, bringing healthcare service continuity closer to the patient journey. For now, there are 14 applications in the directory, all of which respond to interoperability requirements that will enable applications to interact with electronic health records in the future.

Data protection is guaranteed by certificates that ensure privacy and security in the exchange of application data with multiple healthcare stakeholders.

What Will the Future Hold for Healthcare?

The greatest challenges for healthcare are not technological. The organisational, cultural, financial and governance perspectives must also be considered in this ecosystemwide transformation. Long-lasting change happens only when leadership and policy understand the challenge, incorporate learnings and set the foundations to transform the status quo, providing resources and guidance to build a different future.

Two possible scenarios will unfold:

  • The return to normality. The “back to normal” narrative will feed into old organisational and governance patterns, leading to a longer recovery phase for areas that have been heavily affected by the pandemic (e.g., chronic care, health promotion and prevention). Preventable death rates will increase as a result of the increased focus on the care gap created by the pandemic.
  • A transformational journey. To overcome a simplistic view of the new normal narrative, organisations will need to reflect on what it really takes to transform the healthcare sector, working synchronously at multiple levels, from policy to the definition of new models of care that will move from telehealth to just health. This will require a bold move to shift the solutions implemented as a quick response to the crisis to a new standard, optimising workflows and conforming to safe and clear regulatory structures, driving the acceleration of innovative technologies with a long-term view.


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