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Technology is key to unlock healthcare cost savings

PROGNOSIS As the UK population ages and more people live with illness, provision of healthcare must adapt to meet the new challenge, writes Lilian Anekwe

 

The way that healthcare is provided and how people expect it to be delivered has changed. There are more demands on healthcare systems as we get older and more people live with chronic illnesses.

Last year researchers at the University of Dundee wrote in The Lancet that “radical change” would be needed for the NHS to cope with the rising number of people suffering chronic illnesses. In response, the Department of Health said technology would be key among these changes. Specifically, the department singled out greater use of telehealth to “help people care for themselves and manage their conditions better”.

Telehealth is an example of connected healthcare, technology-enabled health management initiatives that deliver care outside the traditional medical settings of the hospital and the doctor’s surgery.

Brian O’Connor, chairman of the European Connected Healthcare Alliance, a collaborative of commercial, academic and government stakeholders, says approximately 20 per cent of the population cost more than 80 per cent of the total spend of healthcare services.

“Many people who have chronic diseases are the biggest users of beds in acute hospitals and ambulances, but once they are stable in hospital all they need is monitoring,” he says.

“The big innovation is remote monitoring. If someone in their own home takes their own readings every day, these can give an early indication of possible problems and interventions can be made to prevent that person going to hospital. You can see the benefits to the individual and to the health service.

“Some technologies, such as smartphone apps, are already being used to connect patients and doctors, and by those without chronic diseases who want to manage their own health.”

Marco Mohwinckel is partner at Janssen Healthcare Innovation, a division of Johnson & Johnson tasked with using technology to modernise healthcare delivery at the company. He warns that, though there are clear opportunities for connected health technologies, we should also be wary of “hype”.

“There’s a lot of hype and perhaps confusion around technology, and what it can or cannot do,” he says. “Technology by itself is not necessarily the answer to all problems. It is a valuable tool and an enabler that should be deployed to solve real needs of real people. The key issue around connected healthcare – telehealth, telecare, m-health, all these buzzwords – is that the business models are not clear. Who pays for often unproven technologies at a time when everyone is looking to cut back cost?

“We have tools directed to patients and consumers that allow them to manage and monitor their health and disease better, analytic tools that help manage and put meaning into big healthcare data, devices and apps to encourage connectivity between healthcare professionals and patients, and technologies to improve workflows and processes in and out of hospitals.

“As an industry we have to move away from being product-focused towards being patient-focused and that means delivering outcomes through integrated solutions.”

Investment is desperately needed, says Mr O’Connor. “One of the biggest obstacles is lack of funding. But until we start looking at spending on health as an investment rather than a cost, we will not overcome some of these problems.”

This is beginning to happen in Northern Ireland, he says, while the Department of Health in England has launched its 3millionlives campaign, which is a commitment to bring telehealth and telecare to three million people over the next five years.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the “Obamacare” health reforms have provided $27 billion in incentives for the “meaningful use” of electronic health records. Industry analysts Accenture have highlighted computerised clinical decision support systems, and electronic prescribing alerts and reminders as potential areas of such meaningful use.

The potential for meaningful use of technology in UK healthcare is undisputed.


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