Just as other regions of the world struggle with the difficult dance of improving quality, while increasing access, and doing so in a cost effective manner, so the GCC faces the same. Due to issues such as chronic disease in epidemic proportions, a rapidly expanding population that’s also aging, and the desire to reach specific goals - such as the expansion of medical tourism – it’s no wonder the GCC is searching for unique answers to meet these needs. Fortunately, digital health is offering increasingly effective solutions to do so.
According to a 2012 report by the Digital Innovation in Healthcare Working Group, digital is the new “Fourth Space” in healthcare - a fluid blending of digital and social media use within the traditional healthcare system, consumer empowerment toward self-care, and social movements focused on preventative health. The result is a significant impact on quality, access and cost. As described by the report, the following 4 innovations show how digital health products and services can improve quality, increase access and decrease the costs. Here, we expand upon each and apply them to the GCC.
New Communications Methods
There are many new communications methods available in the world of digital health, and the benefits include a better patient experience, and the reduction of costs. Of all those available, mobile health (m-Health) is one of the most significant. Broadly defined as “the use of mobile computing and communication technologies in health care and public health”, its implementation has been exploding across the globe. When mobile phones transitioned into becoming hand-held computers within the last decade, the new possibilities provided lower income populations with increased access to technology. In addition, since they’re so portable and accessible, both consumers and healthcare providers find them useful in both receiving and providing care on a daily basis, and the minutes that m-Health applications save can add up to significant ROI, as one U.S. pediatric group found. Since some regions of the GCC have the most mobile phone owners in the world, and internet penetration rates are so high, m-Health is an excellent option for meeting the healthcare needs of a region that has some of the strongest ICT sectors in the world.
Smartphones certainly aren’t the only method of mobile communication. Tablet computers are increasingly replacing laptops in the portable digital world, and they’re being used extensively in healthcare. An excellent example is Duke University’s digital initiative to improve patient care through this new communication method. When cancer patients visit the oncology clinic there, they record symptoms and other important information on tablet computers in the waiting room before seeing the physician – who then uses this information to guide patient conversations during the visit and individualize treatments. This has provided a method to collect information with more efficiency and accuracy – which has allowed physicians to spend more quality time with patients.
Within the GCC, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) implemented tablet use by distributing more than 3,000 Android tablets to all health centers in the region. In doing so, it furthered its plans to build smart healthcare environments that will improve the patient experience and help them to be empowered in their own care.
New communication methods aren’t just occurring with smartphones and tablets, they’re happening in a variety of other digital health systems that include health IT, e-Health, and telemedicine. Within health IT systems, electronic communications cover the span of a myriad of applications, either within a patient’s electronic health record, or through application interfaces to communicate with other departments - such as radiology, pharmacy and scheduling. This enhances patient care by increasing continuity and allowing all providers involved to operate within a central record that contains essential information to optimize outcomes.
Remote Care Delivery
The many remote areas in the GCC make it difficult for consumers in those areas to obtain the care they need - and m-Health strategies, as well as telemedicine, offer attractive solutions to bridge the gap. Both equip healthcare providers with the ability to send patient data and diagnostic images across wired or wireless telephonic systems to access expert analysis and treatment recommendations, as well as improve consistency in information about the patient’s care.
Although the increase in ambulatory clinics in the GCC has improved local access to care, patient outcomes would be further enhanced by the ability to collaborate with experts located in advanced health centers in the city – a concept supported by a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study which focused on the needs of the GCC: “Patient treatment assistance; for instance the use of mobile phone apps to increase compliance…well-being apps that allow patients to track and register vital statistics…can be monitored by a treatment team remotely. These services could generate great benefits in an environment where public knowledge on health and diseases is limited while trust and access to medical specialists is often complicated.”
A December 2013 study published in Telemedicine and e-Health, highlighted the positive impact of telehealth in supporting chronic disease self-management programs in rural Ontario, Canada. The study cited barriers such as limited access and funds to spreading consumer education that could help decrease chronic disease – barriers which telehealth helped to overcome. The GCC, and UAE in particular, are regions that are ripe for telehealth. According to H. Stephen Lieber, CEO of HIMSS, “Online and smart phone or android connectivity have the power to transform the way that healthcare providers and patients interact, and when you look at somewhere like the UAE…with its geographic diversity from high density urban hubs to remote communities and a large offshore population, the country is primed for telehealth strategy development.”
Fragmented care is never optimal care – but it’s the reality when essential patient information is held in silos of paper records or disconnected electronic systems. The purest form of digital health creates a unification of all patient data across various platforms, using effective interfaces that enhance information flow. This supports the provision of care by teams of practitioners, rather than individuals, through the sharing of information and integration of services. The quality of care is improved, and costs can be dramatically reduced, as evidenced by a recent study which found that when patient information was shared within health information exchanges, redundant radiological exams were decreased – saving millions of dollars.
In the U.S., the recently published results of “The Improving Management of Individuals With Complex Healthcare Needs Through Health IT” initiative examined a variety of patient care and safety factors, with a focus on the role of health IT to improve outcomes. Project results included:
- A positive impact on clinical acceptance and use of health IT
- Improvement in the flow of information when patients transitioned from one clinician to another
- High levels of patient engagement and activation in self-care
- Reductions in hospital or emergency department use
Standardization of Care
When care is provided based on the use of clinical protocols that are evidence-based and validated through scientific research and clinical trials, patients receive care that has been proven to be the best. Digital health supports this through the use of technology and information to test treatment outcomes, shorten feedback time, and enhance decision-making by healthcare providers. And while the existence of such protocols is essential, so is the ability for practitioners to access them with ease in a timely manner. Instead of making a trip back to the office to look up the most recent recommendations, a physician can now pull it up on his smartphone at the patient’s bedside and implement needed care immediately.
Additionally, electronic medical records within health IT systems typically provide reminders for physicians regarding diagnostic protocols, such as hemoglobin A1c testing for diabetes, breast cancer screening, screening for sexually transmitted diseases, and colorectal cancer screening. Published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, a recent Weill Cornell Medical College study found that when physicians use EMRs, they provide better care. According to Dr. Rainu Kaushal, the study’s senior investigator, “EHRs may improve the quality of care by making information more accessible to physicians, providing medical decision-making support in real time and allowing patients and providers to communicate regularly and securely. However, the real value of these systems is their ability to organize data and to allow transformative models of health care delivery, such as the patient-centered medical home, to be layered on top.”
Yes, digital health is here to stay, and it offers unique solutions for meeting GCC healthcare needs. Across the globe, it’s carving out a new frontier in healthcare – improving quality, increasing access, and decreasing costs. With its rapid expansion in the GCC, digital health offers these same benefits for a region that is in dire need of its offerings, and will vastly benefit from putting them to use.