Digital technology paves way for better access to healthcare

Tristan Manalac
28 Sep 2020

Digital technology is key in improving access to healthcare. This was the key message in one of the breakout sessions during the recently concluded 2020 Virtual Forum of the Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association (APACMed 2020). Especially under lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, digital health allows providers to continuously deliver services to their patients.

The session was joined by Chang Liu, managing director of Access Health International; Elisabeth Staudinger, president of Siemens Healthineers Asia-Pacific; and Julie Tay, senior vice president and managing director of Align Technology, Asia-Pacific. It was moderated by Bruno Occhipinti, founder and lead consultant of CrestaLab.

According to Liu, while access to health is most readily thought of as the timeliness of delivery, healthcare providers should also think about how they can leverage digital technology to improve coverage as well, boosting affordability and medical security for more people.

On top of that, the quality and standard of care delivered should also be of high quality, assuring patients of the best possible health outcomes.

“When we talk about access, I think there’s also another component where we say we want to raise the standard of care,” Tay said. “Wherever possible, we also want to be able to prevent an unfortunate outcome. I think that’s all possible with digitalization.”

She also pointed out that innovations can now provide patients with deep insight into the care that they receive. In dentistry, for example, new technologies allow patients to see the impacts of a procedure, on a 2D or 3D visualization of their face.

“I think things like that will allow very good conversations that a patient can have on how the patient is being treated, what the consumer is paying for. That’s critical in raising the standard of care,” Tay said.

Integration, inclusivity, impact

While digital health holds such great potential, Liu pointed out that there are a few crucial considerations that innovators and healthcare providers need to be aware of before deploying novel technologies.

First is to check whether the new digital solution synchronizes with and integrates well into the current existing healthcare system. Many products fail to account for this and instead become standalone and separate parts of the overall healthcare process, he said. In worse cases, they may even contribute to the further fragmentation of the healthcare system.

Second, introduced technologies need to truly be inclusive with respect to the most vulnerable groups.

“There is certainly financial disparity, but unfortunately there is also technology disparity. And a lot of times, people with lower socioeconomic status also have barriers to access to technology,” Liu explained. In deploying technological health solutions, providers also need to think about overcoming these barriers.

Finally, developers need to determine what the real value of these digital health solutions are. Will they help substantially improve clinical outcomes? Or are they designed to reduce overall healthcare spending?  This value proposition will not only help it fit better into the healthcare structure, but also help make a solid business case for the developer and justify the costs of the new technology.

Promise and peril

Staudinger agrees that a strong business case is essential, but adds that this is also something that companies, technology developers, and healthcare providers should think about from an ethical and regulatory point of view, particularly in solutions that are consumer-facing.

To illustrate, she presented a hypothetical scenario: If, for example, an online platform offered free medical consultations, “then the business model [would be] reliant on making money depending on what happens after the consultation.”

There may be undue incentive to guide patients to avail of specific drugs, medications, devices, or services online, which in turn could be funding the free service, raising important ethical concerns.

Digital technologies have the potential to “allow countries here in Asia to really leapfrog when it comes to digital health and providing access to health,” Staudinger said, noting that “there will be a certain minimum requirement of frameworks and regulations around it to make sure that we really delivery the quality that people deserve.”

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