Virtual consultations and data analytics are just some of the ways by which technology is changing the face of healthcare .

Technology has been at the core of the transformation for many industry sectors in recent times. The healthcare industry is no exception, with digital adoption rapidly changing the way healthcare is delivered to patients.

Consider some of these technologies – a mobile hospital cart that checks on patients, a connected wheelchair that gives real time updates, embedded sensors that give alerts on any physiological irregularities and ‘robot-nurses’ that come with communication interfaces for video chatting. These may sound futuristic; but many of them are already being explored by the healthcare industry to improve efficiency and patient experience.

The how’s and why’s of digital adoption in the healthcare industry were the topics of discussion at the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. Industry leaders spoke about the ways in which hospitals can leverage digital technologies to improve performance and impact.

Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group and Faculty at Stanford Business School spoke at length about the exact application of digital technologies in hospitals. He believes that two specific technologies will radically change medicine: (1) video and (2) data analytics. Each of these were discussed in detail at the summit.

Virtual healthcare services for better access
Dr. Pearl elaborated on how video technologies can revolutionise healthcare delivery. With camera phones that offer high quality video and audio capabilities becoming ubiquitous, patients can now take videos showing or describing their symptoms and WhatsApp or email them to a doctor. The doctor can then use the same technologies to remotely provide his diagnosis, when possible, and prescribe medications. This practice, called telemedicine, will reduce distance and time from the medical process since, in many instances, neither the patient nor the doctor will have to schedule visits and travel.

According to Dr. Pearl, his organization did 16 million in-person visits in Northern California and 14 million virtual visits last year. He believes that hospitals are treatment centers and not essential for all diagnosis. His vision is to increase the number of virtual visits so that in the future, patients can reduce their hospital visits. The below infographic details some of the major areas where telemedicine can have an impact.

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India certainly has the potential, as well as the need, to be an early adopter and innovator in telemedicine. The shortage of doctors in rural areas, high patient volumes, rapidly increasing availability of high speed digital networks and growth in the availability of hand-held monitoring devices are all factors that will lead to the growth of telemedicine in India.

Major Indian players in telemedicine include the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospitals who launched one of India’s earliest telemedicine programs and now have 800 telemedicine centers. The hospital also has an ECG network through which doctors in remote areas can access ECG readings by its experts. A PPP initiative by the hospital, the Karnataka government and ISRO also set up an experimental telemedicine network which connects coronary care units in selected districts with specialists in NH for expert opinion on the course of treatment. It was found to improve specialty care and reduce time and cost for patients in rural and semi urban areas.

Telemedicine is not without disadvantages. First, doctors and patients in remote areas need to be educated and trained to trust and use the technologies associated with it. Additionally, billing presents a challenge especially when insurance coverage also has to be considered. While the healthcare provider needs to have a robust and safe system in place, the patient also needs to have adequate knowledge of how billing and payments work. Telemedicine is also not useful when the diseases are extremely complex and require continuous care by the same practitioner. Besides, this mode of medical practice is subject to multiple laws i.e. those governing the medical profession, doctor patient relationship and information technology.

Nevertheless, it is an excellent way to address the deficit in healthcare access for a large part of the population in India.

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The second aspect of the technology revolution that will significantly impact medicine, says Dr Pearl, is data analytics.

Data analytics is used in multiple ways in healthcare services – planning service delivery based on patient requirements, mapping performance against benchmarks, analysis of medical care cost, analyzing/predicting health conditions based on patient records, demographic data, etc.

Patient medical records is one area where data analytics is most commonly used. The shift to digital technology means that patient’s medical records are being transferred to a digital cloud platform. These EMRs (Electronic Medical Records) are expected to become a larger part of hospitals systems in the near future, according to research by Deloitte. With the help of Big Data and healthcare analytics, these records can be analyzed and ailments can be monitored, diagnosed, and even predicted. Since this data is available on the cloud, a patient’s medical history will be available to any doctor at the hospital at the click of a button.

The single Aadhar card number can potentially be used to link disparate medical records of a patient. Using this, healthcare providers can get instant access to a patient’s complete medical history, which will inform them of the necessary course of treatment. This is a realistic scenario once the data security and privacy laws around medical records, currently a work in progress, are solidified.

Other than providing background records for a patient, EMRs are also a valuable source of data. Healthcare analysts are already exploring different possibilities with EMRs, studying the data to identify patterns to help them across a range of situations, including improving hospital administration.

Another example of using data was brought up at the summit by Prof. N K Ganguly, Former Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research. He talked about the fully equipped outreach centers that were set up after the Bhopal Gas tragedy to ease the burden on the main hospital. The health authorities along with a private technology partner, created Smart Cards where all the patient information was stored. This helped save a lot of time and effort, says Prof. Ganguly.

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Taking services to homes
Technology is also now being used to deliver in-home healthcare services. The technology here ranges from tele-monitoring devices that capture vital signs and basic health parameters of the home patient to wearable devices that alert for emergencies to bed sensors that capture sleep patterns, pulse, respiration and so on. Data from these devices is relayed to the service provider.

Abbott’s CardioMEMS is a good example of using technology to offer care remotely. It is a small wireless heart monitoring sensor that is implanted directly in the patient’s pulmonary artery through a non-surgical procedure. The device senses increase in the pressure of blood flowing through the artery and wirelessly notifies doctors for any irregularity. Many examples can be found of how the device has helped cardiac care patients seek timely intervention right from their homes. George Galanti for example had been hospitalised more than 70 times for heart failure. CardioMEMS helped him transition to a lifestyle where doctors could catch dangers signs in his heart pressure before he felt any discomfort and treat them in advance. This significantly reduced the number of hopitalisations he had to endure.

Other such embedded devices include self-monitoring headbands and inhalers with GPS trackers to track asthma attacks and accordingly offer pre-emptive care. Such technology tools help in the successful delivery of home healthcare services.

To best use these technologies, health care providers will have to develop a system to monitor the data from them 24×7.

So how does a hospital successfully make a transition to the digital age? A McKinsey report lays down some pointers for any organisation to successfully effect a digital transformation.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve health outcomes and help people live fuller, healthier lives. #KhabarLive