Healthcare started to adopt IT in a way that is comparable to other industries. At first, computers became responsible for standardized and easy to automate tasks. Next, came the start of analyzing vast amounts of data.
In time, everything from patient records to supply-chain management were automated and systems were integrated with one another. Governments started to back IT adoption. Germany introduced the electronic health card project. In America, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act passed into law. The UK NHS adopted the National Programme for IT. National programs and organizations paved the way for the third phase of IT innovation in the healthcare sector.
The private sector and organizations in the supply chain have been quicker to adopt new eHealth solutions. Due to populations aging and poor lifestyle choices causing more chronic illnesses than ever, healthcare costs continue to rise. This problem is particularly acute in developed countries. eHealth and digital technologies offer ways to reduce costs, improve patient care and put in place preventative healthcare for patients. Or at least, that is the dream in the healthcare sector around the world. Transforming this into a reality is proving more challenging.
Challenges facing eHealth adoption
One of the main ones is that healthcare providers – whether public or private – are still more focused on processes than patient outcomes. For patients’ outcomes to improve, that thinking needs to change. Patients themselves are more comfortable using technology to research symptoms with tools like WebMD, DrEd, PatientsLikeMe, and ZocDoc. They track health and fitness data via connected fitness devices, and even have consultations with a doctor remotely.
When it comes to digital adoption in the sector, it’s a chicken and egg situation. Healthcare executives think that patients don’t want to use eHealth services. Whereas, according to McKinsey research, the majority of people don’t use these because “existing services don’t meet their needs or because they are of poor quality.” Digital needs to play more of a role in multi-channel healthcare delivery; similar to the role that eCommerce is playing in the retail sector.
Other challenges preventing multi-channel adoption in healthcare:
There is a widespread assumption that eHealth services only appeal to younger audiences. That isn’t the case. Patients of all ages are willing to use digital healthcare tools. The McKinsey survey revealed that 70% of older patients (over 50 years) in the UK and Germany want to use eHealth solutions. Older generations prefer e-mail and websites, whereas younger generations are happier with social media and apps.
Mobile is not the only way forward
Not everyone wants to use apps, whether that means to manage a chronic condition or contacting a doctor. With over 350,000 healthcare apps on the Apple and Google Play stores, competition for users and relevance is fierce. Many of these apps aren’t created with the support of medical providers, making them lifestyle apps, not healthcare solutions. Some are relevant and useful, especially if they play a role in improving patient lifestyle and choices, thus preventing people from needing treatment.
Simplicity vs. complexity
Providers need to remember that what patients want isn’t complex. Blockchain, for example, might be a solution that will play a role in secure patient data storage and transfer. But the majority of patients don’t need to know or would even care about that. When people are ill, they want care and comfort. That will always be the case. As McKinsey notes, patients expect “efficiency, better access to information, integration with other channels, and the availability of a real person if the digital service doesn’t give them what they need.”
Understanding these facts takes us beyond the eHealth myths. Human bodies and minds haven’t changed much in millions of years. Our needs have evolved and become more complex, with greater efficiency in our society than we have ever had. But that doesn’t mean our healthcare providers need to create overly complex apps and platforms; not when patients need simple answers to healthcare problems. eHealth innovation is also needed to monitor and manage illnesses, or prevent them from occurring through lifestyle improvements.
How to overcome eHealth challenges?
Healthcare is not going to change overnight. We are talking about a multi-trillion dollar sector, with different countries facing unique challenges. Although aging populations, chronic diseases and higher costs are familiar to almost everyone in this sector. Digitization in healthcare is recognized as a vital part of the solution.
To ensure eHealth solutions stay relevant and create value, there are a few ways they can improve on current strategies:
1. Align lifestyle apps with awareness campaigns
In the public and private sector, awareness campaigns are always going to play a role in fighting chronic conditions. Losing weight, quit smoking campaigns, drinking less and consuming less sugar are some of the most popular. Lifestyle websites, apps and connected device producers need to spend more time aligning what they do with these campaigns, even partnering, whenever possible with healthcare providers.
Consumer awareness, changing attitudes and actions is one of the most effective ways healthcare apps can reduce the number of patients admitted for chronic conditions.
2. Continue to reduce costs for stakeholders
In the U.S., healthcare accounts for around 17.6% of GDP, which is $600 billion more than it should for a country of that size with that level of economic development, according to an OECD analysis. Innovation in medical big data is helping doctors to make evidence rather than judgement-based decisions, thereby reducing costs and improving healthcare outcomes.
Home healthcare is another area where innovation is reducing costs and improving the health of patients. Now, with connected devices and apps that let providers monitor health in real-time, the elderly and those with chronic conditions can live at home for a lot longer, with more dignity and freedom than was possible even a decade ago. Home health still only accounts for 3% of national healthcare spending in the U.S. (around $68bn annually), growing at a rate of 9%. More growth in this area would reduce the impact of chronic diseases and aging on hospitals and doctors. And technology is already making this a reality.
3. An increase in telehealth
Studies show that telehealth has a positive impact on all concerned, including healthcare providers and those receiving the care. According to a study: “hospital admissions dropped by close to one-fifth, while its cost was up to two orders of magnitude lower than that of alternatives.”
Apps may not always be the answer, but remote eHealth monitoring and communication, plus some form of self-care provision is one way to make it easier for patients to receive 24/7 treatment without placing an enormous cost burden on providers and payers.
Few in the healthcare industry question the relevance of eHealth. Right now, the challenge is integrating innovation with processes, procedures, legacy systems and the needs of patients. Understanding patient needs – and discounting myths and ideas that are too fanciful – will pave the way for full eHealth adoption.