Digital transformation in healthcare remains complex and challenging

The famous Henry Ford quote seems just as true today as it was at the time, about wanting faster horses. I know from my own experience when I have asked business sponsors, managers and clinicians about problems or pain points they often reach for the nearest solution within sight. This approach misses the deeper technology requirements and fundamentally isn’t really transformative.

The hard part of digital transformation in healthcare is challenging how we work right now and establishing why we maintain the status quo? In other sectors such as retail, travel and banking, society has benefited from a very data driven technological approach. In those sectors they’ve redefined the customer experience in a way that hasn’t been realised in healthcare.

Healthcare is ready for digital disruption

Whilst progress has been made in digital healthcare, it hasn’t necessarily been transformational and in many cases is a simple conversion of analogue to electronic. Certainly the areas of eReferral, ePrescribing and eHealth Records haven’t undergone revolutionary change, they’re simply the transference of what were analogue forms and processes into electronic versions of the same. In healthcare transformation so many processes remain ripe for digital disruption.

We’re heading into the post-digital era where healthcare organisations will need to adopt new and emerging technology. These new technologies will drive change in an environment where the sector already has a multitude of existing digital tools. The new technology that is already appearing in healthcare includes artificial intelligence, distributed ledger technology, extended reality and quantum computing.

Most industries that have undergone digital transformation have done so by adopting a data-driven approach. In healthcare we’re entering an era where data will be generated at scale. Through genomics, IoT and citizen facing applications, alongside traditional health data, new data points will emerge with patterns that were not previously identifiable. This also provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to prevent illness and offer treatment with much greater precision.

Other sectors have all been through this disruptive change whether that was consumer banking, mobile telecommunications or online retail, they’ve all had to overcome new entrants to the market that are not part of legacy, but more importantly these new entrants will redefine healthcare as we know it.

Challenging traditional approaches to healthtech

In all likelihood it’ll be technology that redefines healthcare and this will be driven by data. However the approach is unlikely to try and incrementally fix yesterday’s problems but instead create a new endpoint with a new way of getting there. This will challenge traditional ways of approaching healthcare technology and will almost certainly threaten the very linear delivery models of the past.

Technology needs to normalise as part of healthcare delivery, for example Natural Language Processing technology is often perceived as standalone technology but it’s power will emerge when it’s incorporated into other digital products and it moves from processing to aiding actions and supporting decisions.

Our health system in the UK is very much designed around reacting to illness, the very origins were to treat illness, so it’s not surprising that this is how the system has evolved. Much of our framework for digital transformation has been about making small incremental gains in managing illness and its associated workload. If the system could pivot to one which is based on prediction then some of the illness may be prevented before it progresses and equally some of the workload may not exist in the same way.

Empowering the patient

The components of a healthcare system haven’t changed very much, they still consist of doctors and other clinicians, in a physical location with waiting areas for patients. Whilst we may now use computers instead of physical appointment books, the concept and the model hasn’t changed very much in the last 100 years. If we could redefine healthcare, how much of it would we put back in the hands of a patient? Could our delivery model and physical healthcare spaces be reimagined?

Digital transformation in healthcare is reliant on a new approach to digital development. The technology can’t be viewed as being separate to the delivery of services but must be seen as part of the service. The relationship between citizen and healthcare needs to be redefined so that the underlying components of healthcare can be re-engineered.

I hope we’ll look back one day from a point where the challenge isn’t faster ambulances or waiting time in the emergency department, but instead the techniques through which we process mass data to predict and prevent the event from occurring.

Sam Shah is Director of Digital Development at NHS England.

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