The future of digital health care: Challenges and solutions

In this blog post, I’ll explore some of the challenges that the healthcare industry is currently facing, as well as potential solutions that could help alleviate these issues. We’re seeing a lot of innovation in this space; let’s take a look at some of the exciting developments that are currently under way.

Challenge: Aging population

One of the primary challenges in the healthcare space is the aging population. This demographic shift intensifies the strain on healthcare systems, as there's a greater demand for healthcare services, but fewer people working in the industry to meet that demand. This imbalance between supply and demand is a major issue which drives up the cost of healthcare.

Challenge: Complexity and manual work

Today’s healthcare systems contain a high degree of complexity. The needs of hospitals, general practitioners, and care centers are vastly different from one another. As a result, each healthcare provider faces unique challenges when it comes to implementing new technology and streamlining their operations.
This complexity means considerable manual work is required, which in turn increases cost. The convoluted processes in our healthcare systems can make it difficult to streamline and automate much of the manual work involved.

Challenge: Cost of and resistance to automation

Automation has been touted as one solution to help alleviate some of the pressure on healthcare. However, the cost of getting automation wrong is very high for providers and, more importantly, to patients. As such, automation needs to be implemented in a thoughtful and strategic manner and not considered a one-size-fits-all solution.
Additionally, while other industries prioritize customer service, healthcare is often viewed as an antiquated system that is not inherently patient-friendly. This can make it difficult for patients to navigate the healthcare system and receive the care they need. Implemented incorrectly, automation can make this process seem even more impersonal and aversive for patients.

Challenge: Access to care

Finally, the distribution of access to care is currently uneven, both in terms of financial means and location. For instance, individuals residing in rural areas may be unable to access the same quality of care as their urban counterparts. This can have a significant impact on a patient’s ability to receive treatment for specific diseases or conditions, highlighting the need for greater equity in healthcare distribution.

While these hurdles provide challenges for the healthcare industry, there is significant innovation happening to overcome them. In upcoming sections, I’ll explore some of the solutions that are being developed to help improve the overall healthcare experience for patients.

Solution: Digital self-service solutions

There are many processes that can be automated in healthcare. One possibility is replacing provider consultations with self-service solutions.
For example, a prescription for contraception currently often requires consultation with a doctor. Most of the time, this could be done as an automated service, with the patient answering relevant questions and receiving the prescription without the need for a consultation. Many conditions could benefit from giving the patient more control over their own treatment with a self-service approach.

We are already seeing the proliferation of specific apps and services for certain conditions, commonly referred to as digital therapeutics. With chronic conditions, patients often end up developing vast, intimate knowledge of their situation. Quite often, such patients gradually become experts in their own disease. As such, they should be able to receive more help through self-guided medical care.
But while self-service solutions and digital therapeutics can enhance patient experience and outcomes, they cannot entirely replace the need for a doctor's consultation, especially when it comes to diagnosing complex or uncommon health issues. The doctor-patient relationship will remain crucial to receiving high-quality care.

Solution: Remote access to specialists

With the increased ability to consult with doctors remotely, such as through video calls, patients can receive specialized treatment from anywhere in the world.
Practitioners who specialize in certain diseases or disciplines are not physically limited to taking patients from a specific geography anymore. They can then hone in on their chosen specialization, evolve their knowledge in that area, and take patients from everywhere. The result is better treatment for patients because they get to consult with a professional who understands their condition even better.
In addition to enabling access to specialists outside of one’s immediate location, remote consultations can also help improve health outcomes for patients in situations where physical meetings may be impossible or ill-advised (such as in a global pandemic).

Solution: AI-assisted transcription, translation, and summarization

Transcription and translation technologies for doctor consultations are just around the corner.

Transcription is essentially a written record of everything that's said during a consultation. It's a text summary of the conversation. Meanwhile, translation can provide live, translated captions during the consultation itself. This unlocks the possibility of consulting with medical practitioners who speak a language different from the patient’s, thereby increasing access to specialized care.

This technology is already being demonstrated in other industries, and I believe it will be deployed in telehealth services within the next one to two years.

Additionally, AI has the potential to go beyond just transcription and translation. In the next few years we'll likely see automatic creation of consultation summaries. Summaries are mandatory medical records that need to be written by the doctor and entered into the health record system, creating an audit trail for the system. In the US, they are often called SOAP notes.

In the next two to four years, natural language processing (NLP) technology will allow doctors to automate the creation of these summaries. This will not only save doctors time, but also produce better and more readable summaries for future reference.

Solution: Improving the doctor consultation process with technology

Digital self-service may be suitable in cases where the patient already knows what their issue is and has an idea of how to approach their treatment. But when it comes to an initial holistic assessment of their symptoms, patients are going to want to talk to a doctor.

The doctor consultation can probably never be replaced, but can be improved with the help of technology. We can equip doctors with better tools and techniques to make consultations more efficient and accurate. This can be achieved through what I call Doctor 2.0–an evolution of the doctor's role and skillset with the support of technology.

We won’t see completely autonomous doctors for a very long time, but with the help of natural language processing AI can assist the doctor during a medical consultation. This might include providing suggestions such as:

  • Questions the doctor should ask the patient during the consultation.
  • What additional examination should be performed.
  • Highlighting potential diagnoses and differentiators between them.

Having aid from a computer during consultation will help the doctor be more efficient and accurate with their treatment. It won’t act as a replacement for medical professionals, but will be a useful tool in their medical toolbox.

Furthermore, automating the consultation booking process and peripheral administrative tasks can free up more time for doctors to focus on consultations. By streamlining these processes, healthcare providers can improve availability and efficiency, making healthcare more accessible for all.

Being mindful of risks and undesirable outcomes

Telehealth has emerged as a game-changer for patients and healthcare providers alike. By removing geographical constraints and facilitating care access irrespective of financial means , digital healthcare has been instrumental in evening out the distribution of care. I believe that the development of telehealth is mostly for the good, but we also have to consider potential downsides.
One risk of this healthcare transformation is diminishing access to real health care providers. The evolution of affordable automated solutions could result in time with real doctors becoming a luxury commodity that few people can afford. We need to actively work to minimize this possibility.

Additionally, a scenario could emerge where some tech companies monopolize healthcare automation technologies, restricting their access within the medical community. We’ve already seen similar problems in the pharmaceutical industry, with pharmaceutical companies pricing certain medications and treatments in a way that is prohibitive to the patient. We need to ensure that advancements in healthcare technology serve to increase accessibility to care, rather than diminishing it.

So while telehealth has the potential to provide healthcare to those who need it most, we must be conscious of the possible negative consequences and work to prevent them. It's important to remember that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right, and we must strive to ensure that everyone has access to quality care.

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