Much like many other areas of our lives, digital technologies are making dramatic transformations in the healthcare industry. Not only are new advances in digital technology improving our diagnostic capabilities and ability to treat both acute and chronic illnesses, but they are also helping us to more generally increase the quality of healthcare delivered to patients.
While this digital transformation has been underway for quite some time already, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an accelerator of both consumer preferences and innovations in the delivery of healthcare.
As a result of these shifts, leaders in the healthcare world now view digital transformation to not only become more consumer-friendly by responding to these new demands, but also to use these changes to bring about organizational and operational transformations.
But what are some of the ways that digital technology is changing the provision of healthcare? And what will the future of digital health look like?
Digital Communications and Telepresence
One way that digital technologies are making the delivery of certain healthcare services more efficient is through utilizing various forms of digital communications.
This includes the use of any smartphone or internet-connected device to communicate with patients for a wide variety of purposes. Some of these applications are in the home care setting and include the actual provision of patient care such as telehealth, telemedicine and telehospitals.
In terms of the benefits of these kinds of digital technologies, they make healthcare more accessible, particularly in deprived areas or in areas where medical professionals might struggle to deliver healthcare due to the surrounding environment.
Digital communication technologies have also aided the transition away from paper-based to electronic healthcare records. This makes the storage of patient data more efficient, more secure, and readily available for processing.
Robotics and Surgical Intervention
Although robotics looks set to be deployed across the full spectrum of healthcare services – such as caregiving machines that can undertake basic tasks, including delivering meals and medication – it is in the context of surgical interventions that they arguably hold the most potential.
While robots performing complex surgeries at one point in time might have seemed like the stuff of science fiction, it is surprisingly commonplace today.
For particularly complex surgeries, the limits of what we could accomplish were often human dexterity and the ability to access hard-to-reach parts of the body. However, thanks to advances in robotics, surgeons can now easily access parts of the body that at one time seemed impossible. Many surgeries are also now much less invasive, which improves both patient experiences and recovery times.
Ultimately, this improves patients’ experiences of healthcare organizations and helps to reduce labor costs. Most importantly, robots also help to improve the quality of the healthcare delivered.
Another way that digital technologies are helping to improve the provision of healthcare to patients is by streamlining the process of dispensing prescriptions.
A number of start-ups have developed mobile apps that can be used to order prescriptions and to receive notifications when it is time to renew them. For the end user, this can be done with the simple tap of a button, while for the pharmacy, it increases the efficiency of the process as a whole.
As part of this, we have also seen digital prescription apps using telehealth calls and digital doctor visits to streamline the process of ordering prescriptions. Telehealth visits are particularly useful for more routine or regular prescriptions, which typically tend to create congestion in healthcare systems.
Digital Health and Artificial Intelligence
Another major focus in the digital future of the healthcare sector will be artificial intelligence and machine learning.
There is a wide range of uses for artificial intelligence and machine learning across the healthcare sector, though they will be particularly useful for improving diagnostics. One recent industry report has forecast that by 2026, two-thirds of medical imagining processes will use artificial intelligence to detect disease and guide treatment.
We have seen some of these uses for artificial intelligence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where artificial intelligence-assisted digital technologies were used to both diagnose illness and to stop the spread of the disease. Similar clinical applications for artificial intelligence are found in cancer analysis.
Barriers to Digital Health
Despite the clear benefits of using digital technologies to improve the provision of healthcare, there are a number of different obstacles and barriers that healthcare organizations need to be aware of in order to properly leverage them.
One of the most immediate of these is ensuring that healthcare professionals at all levels are properly trained to use them.
With that said, educational programs will be important to ensuring that the healthcare professionals of tomorrow are properly prepared to use them in clinical settings. We have already begun to see this in, for example, online accelerated BSN programs, which train future nurses in the latest clinical and operational practices.
Training in these digital technologies will also be required for those currently at the frontline of healthcare provision.
More generally, it is also important for hospitals and other healthcare organizations to fully commit to embracing what these technologies offer. Advocacy within healthcare organizations will be important to ensuring that there is buy-in from all relevant stakeholders, particularly where financial resources are required to aid this transition.
Despite these obstacles, however, the benefits of digital technology for the healthcare sector is clear. They will not only help to improve patient outcomes and patient experiences of healthcare organizations but will also help to free up resources in overstretched and under-resourced hospitals.