How technology can help us achieve universal healthcare

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(Ken Treloar, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Henk de Jong, Chief of International Markets, Philips


This week, the World Health Assembly (WHA) is convening in Geneva to address the implementation of the health-related goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a particular focus on how to make universal health coverage (UHC) a reality.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its draft Global Strategy on Digital Health, which puts digital health initiatives and greater use of technology and health information systems at the heart of achieving affordable and universal access to care. While the WHA’s focus is, understandably, on the role of the public sector, no government body, NGO or company alone can solve the myriad challenges that stand in the way of achieving universal health coverage. Achieving UHC by 2030 will only be possible if we create a collaborative ecosystem that makes the private sector and governments a major part of the digital transformation.

In the health tech sector, I see a powerful combination of data and technology innovations becoming available that can enable a value-based healthcare revolution. Governments can now confidently accelerate the deployment of connectivity and technology to deliver real impact and scale in their health systems.

Ongoing digitalization and the introduction of new technologies, like telehealth, are already breaking down boundaries and creating patient-centric healthcare systems. This trend will explode in 2019 and beyond, as the benefits of shifting tasks to less intensive care settings or even at home become increasingly recognised, and the healthcare expectations of digital consumers change.

Telehealth and AI: innovation is bringing patients closer to care

In mature countries, the shift to telehealth is helping eliminate waiting times and reducing transportation costs, but it is also playing an essential role in improving access to care for patients in emerging countries and rural locations (communities in rural locations are half as likely to have access to care as their urban counterparts).

Another area of exciting innovation with great scope for facilitating the delivery of universal health coverage is artificial intelligence (AI). AI is changing the way we treat patients by providing personalised treatment plans and has great potential to improve patient outcomes and the efficiency of care delivery. But the true value of AI can only be unlocked by combining it with knowledge of the clinical and operational context in which it is used – a people-centered approach that we call ‘adaptive intelligence’.

Combined with robotics and automation, these technologies will ultimately help doctors spend more time with their patients. To enable this, however, there needs to be investment in upskilling healthcare professionals to adapt to new technologies and discoveries, and a change in the way we train medical students. The WHO estimates that by 2035 there will be a global deficit of about 12.9 million skilled health professionals – that is, midwives, nurses and physicians. Some countries don’t even have their own medical schools with which to train healthcare professionals, so there is a real need for these technologies to bridge the gap.

New healthcare models and hospitals of the future are set to deliver change

Many of today’s doctors, and certainly the next generation of medical practitioners, will be working in the hospitals of the future. These hospitals will be built largely around technology, with AI, telehealth and connected care being the norm, and advanced computers and algorithms taking over administrative and routine tasks – improving both the quality and affordability of care.

While the technology and connectivity challenges of this vision are significant, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the patient is the most important aspect of the delivery of care. To get to a value-based care system centered around the patient, we need to measure our progress against what we at Philips call the ‘quadruple aim’: supporting a healthy lifestyle and enhancing the patient experience, improving health outcomes, lowering healthcare costs and improving the working life of healthcare providers.

Innovative public-private partnerships give digital transformation scale and impact

Digitalization can only deliver results through innovative partnerships that bring together organizations to serve a common purpose. That is why we have partnered with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to improve the health and well-being of 50 million women and girls in countries where health challenges are greatest.

Through the partnership, we will develop and scale high-quality healthcare solutions – driven by cutting-edge technologies and supported by innovative financing – to serve the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities. This starts with a pilot in Congo-Brazzaville, where we are working together with the UNFPA to ensure that women from the poorest communities have a stronger chance of experiencing healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries, getting the care both they and their newborns need at every step.

The collaboration will also boost UNFPA’s ongoing efforts to build countries’ capacities to collect, analyse and use health data for more effective decision-making.

I’m hopeful that the World Health Assembly will share our focus on innovation, responsible leadership and collaborative ecosystems during their discussions this week, and that we will see concrete commitments and guidelines that bring us closer to universal health coverage. With the power of technology and digital tools in our hands, and the willingness of the public and private sectors to work together, we stand a stronger chance of making UHC a reality by 2030.

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