Future Healthcare in a Digital World
Whatever else the future holds for healthcare, it will certainly involve more extensive applications of digital technology. That’s not to say HCPs have been slow to adopt it. Many branches of healthcare have already been busy harnessing the potential of digital in smart technical ways: gene sequencing, diagnostic imaging, telemedicine, electronic medical records and so on.
However, this is just the start. Digital technology has a track record of shaking things up far more. It opens up scope for approaching familiar businesses in different ways, for adding new value and for stripping out unnecessary costs. It enables quick-witted incumbents and ambitious newcomers try out fresh ideas that challenge or even bypass established practice. Experience is showing that virtually every value transaction can be enriched and even reshaped with digital elements.
Digital is certainly a routine part of the mainstream now, with over 78 percent of Americans online. Pew reports that among adults online, email and search are the top activities with 92 percent each. Next in the rankings come searches for medical/health information and getting hobby/interest information (each 83 percent), both ahead of the weather (81 percent). Thanks to high-speed broadband 71 percent of Americans can enjoy video online, and 71 percent buy products online. Further down the rich mix but rising, 65 percent of online adults now use social networking sites, up from 61 percent the year before and just five percent in 2005.
In short, in everyday life Americans have become used to relying on digital technology for information, communication, interaction, transaction and entertainment. These all come with mixes of still and moving images, text and sound, thanks to powerful processors, high-resolution screens and high-powered broadband. It has become truly “multimedia”. That word sounds a little dated now, but it’s an appropriate term to describe what Americans have increasingly come to expect, whether it’s on a big screen, a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet – bearing in mind that 35 percent own a smartphone and 8 percent own a tablet.
All of these media and platform types are quickly cross-linking, multiplying and evolving into a new, digital ecosystem. For healthcare professionals and consumers this offers unprecedented potential for creating valuable channels of communication between different healthcare stakeholders.
Simple innovations with big impacts
The main elements of digital technology are relatively simple when compared with the challenges that medical science deals with in all its complex branches. Yet if healthcare is about improving patient outcomes, simple is not a bad thing. Some of the most important advances in healthcare have come from the simplest of innovations. When doctors started washing their hands with antiseptic in the 19th century they stopped infecting patients with deadly bacteria and death rates dropped impressively. It took the simple systematic nutritional guidelines set out by nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale to cut malnutrition in hospitals. Alexander Fleming’s accidental growth of mold on a staphylococcus culture plate led to the antibiotics that have saved hundreds of millions of lives. The discovery of links between smoking and lung cancer led to anti-smoking initiatives that have helped cut rising rates of self-inflicted illness and untimely death.
The results are plain for all to see. The US Centers for Disease Control reports that during the 20th century the average lifespan of Americans increased by 30 years. Of these extra years, 25 were thanks not to sophisticated new medical techniques or pharmaceutical products, but to advances in public health.
In retrospect these simple innovations were low-hanging fruit. Over the past 60 years or so healthcare specialists have mostly had to reach a lot higher to make a difference; advances in healthcare have been harder and more expensive to achieve. Pharma companies have to risk years and hundreds of millions on products that may get licensed for a limited range of conditions. Life expectancy continues to increase, but at a high cost; people now live with conditions that used to be fatal, thanks to expensive surgery and medication.
Despite the advances, there are strengthening currents running against the tide of healthcare progress; non-communicable diseases caused by lifestyle are now having a heavy impact on Americans’ healthcare and mortality. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States and is responsible for 17% of national health expenditures, with direct costs forecast to triple from the current $273 billion to $818 billion in 2030. Almost 26 million Americans have diabetes and an estimated 79 million have pre-diabetes.
The downside of this lifestyle disease epidemic is that it not only blights the health and well-being of tens of millions of Americans, it also threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system itself, and the nation’s finances. This upside is that it sets the scene for the next great wave of innovation in healthcare. Five factors are coming together to make it more likely than for many years.
1. We have a growing understanding of how diseases originate and progress – and hence how they can be prevented and treated;
2. Consumers have shown increasing interest in healthcare and understanding of disease basics;
3. There are “burning platform” incentives to find ways of reducing ballooning healthcare costs while improving health outcomes;
4. There’s barely-tapped growing power of technology applied to health and healthcare;
5. Like their HCPs, patients are rapidly going digital.
Taken together these factors offer pharmaceutical brands the prospect of connecting more effectively with physicians and patients – moving from a Point Solutions and Programs approach to Dynamic Systems that change everything from research focus through market intelligence and patient support to product launches. The next entries in this series will explore these in more detail and offer a peek at what's next.