By World Healthcare Journal-
2020 marked the beginning of a promising new decade. Over the previous few years, the development of new technology, digital solutions in every industry and the widespread uptake of personal devices and access to data had led us into the next global revolution – and the 2020s held more promise than we could possibly imagine.
However, nobody was expecting that just four months into the new decade, a new form of coronavirus (the same virus that brought us SARS and MERS) would have paralysed the world in a way that not even the most vicious wars managed to achieve.
But now, if we were to look back at this pandemic ten years on, what should we be expecting to see – particularly in how healthcare technology has changed?
The development of data in the 2020s
If we look back to the summer of 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, our usage of data was hugely different – but just beginning to change. Over the past 10 years, it is not only the quality of data which has improved, or our use of it in evidence-based decision making, but the sheer amount of shareable data which has revolutionised our healthcare systems.
“Probably the most important factor was the introduction of population health and massive sharing of data,” says Simon Jones, Director of Data Science and Population Health at Methods Analytics and Professor of Population Health at New York University. .
“I was astonished in my own adopted city of New York and the North-East US when people came together to share enormous data sets to help fight the battle against Covid-19. This enabled the healthcare sector to do some really exciting things. ”
Most notably, the sharing of unprecedented amounts of population health data meant that healthcare providers could take huge amounts of information and segment it - so that they could identify people who were able to benefit from specific treatments.
Having the ability to identify the right interventions for unique cases also meant that providers were now able to predict people at risk from particular conditions as well.
This, combined with the fact that people were prepared to share data on their personal devices such as their mobile phones, smart watches and fitness devices, enabled an almost unprecedented use of population data to ensure that prevention of ill health was one of the primary use cases for using information at this level.
“When you are able to predict the risk of an individual contracting a disease or developing a co-morbidity, the ability for a developed economy to move into a “prevention” mechanism makes the whole health system - and the whole economy - more efficient,” says Richard Oakley, Director of Data Science and AI for Methods Analytics.
“It has had huge benefits in terms of pushing the effort upstream into primary care areas - doctors can now see the risks of a patient as they come through the door and assess their risk based on previous presentations. ”
As a result, the ability to show people hard numbers has been hugely impactful - data is an integral part of our daily life without even realising it. It has become part of our nature. People around the world are in constant engagement with their own health as part of their daily routine – something which has never been seen before.
This enables providers to directly engage with individual patients on terms and grounds that they understand, whereas previously medicine was something understood by only a select few.
“The key to this has been presenting information to people about their personal risk based on the data about their lives. Very focused personalisation has helped many people in the developed world take ownership of their health in a way that previously they didn't,” says Simon Swift, Founder and Managing Director of Methods Analytics. .
Despite not everybody being able, or willing to engage with their health in this way - a significant proportion of the population now has access to information that continually nudges the decisions they make towards healthier choices, making small, healthier choices all the time. In effect, this creates a very significant impact on health over time.
Once populations across the world realised that personalised data can revolutionise the way in which we engage with our health, it opened the floodgates for better communication between suppliers and consumers.
"The gamification of individual health through the use of modern technology and devices that we all carry around has been an extension of the great surge in fitness trackers and similar devices back in the 2010s. It has changed people's lives just by making it so accessible,” says Richard.
Changing the fundamental way in which healthcare systems work
Moving on from looking at the way individuals have changed their behaviour, data has revolutionised the fundamental way in which healthcare systems operate.
Looking back to 2020, we were predicting that by 2030 we would be 30m healthcare workers short across the world, creating a massive crisis in terms of the human capital required to deliver healthcare.
The numbers haven’t changed that much - but we were able to hit the WHO target of universal healthcare for all three years early through the use of technology.
And data has had an enormous part to play in this achievement.
“The management of the healthcare systems through the 2020s has been undertaken by people who fundamentally grew up with and understand data - because they're from a generation that had smartphones by the age of 10 or so, and they've had access to technology throughout their life,” says Richard.
This itself has meant that decision-making is more intuitive, more comfortable - something that people are not scared of. People can understand using predictive models to determine key factors - such as what your demand is likely to be in a particular disease area - and correlate that with how many healthcare workers of a particular type you're going to need.
Which alone is a great way to plan for the future. Systems can formulate growth and planning on the basis of conditions which will continue to rise in the developed world - like obesity - which despite the improvements in people taking ownership of health, is still a rising trend.
At the very core, this approach to developing our healthcare systems requires a different type of health service to that of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, which was focused more around acute disease than chronic disease.
“Cancer patients are now are essentially treated as chronic care patients in all but the most extreme of cases. And that means that you have a very long tail to your healthcare system. It is not as suited to interventional care in the form of doctoring that we knew when we were kids. Fortunately, by using these sort of predictive models, people have adapted and healthcare has evolved and changed to shape it,” says Richard.
Furthermore, this not only carries a benefit for well-developed, cutting-edge healthcare systems, but for less-developed ones as well.
“Developing nations are able to manage their workforce based on similar models. They can shape acute care interventions in outbreaks of infectious disease, and respond more quickly, because they have developed robust, strong plans against scenarios which have been modelled through this same data,” says Richard.
In essence, instead of having a complex, archaic mode of healthcare triage in any setting, providers in all avenues of health and care can be almost laser-guided about where to put the patients and decrease the stress on the system - particularly at the acute end of the health system.
Universal Health Coverage and globalised healthcare
On a much broader, objective scale, this same philosophy has enabled us to progress further towards global UHC. Decades ago, UHC was simply an idea – a philosophy for healthcare to strive towards. However, with the access we now have to technology, communication with patients, and ever-developing population health management tools across the entire world, global UHC is becoming a reality.
“The main difference is communication technology - and the spread of easy, rapid, broad communication so that governments can communicate effectively across the whole population,” says Simon.
“There is a growing realisation by both government and individuals that preventing ill health as opposed to managing sickness is preferable from a personal point of view, and from a government financial point of view. Both have driven enormous investment into communicating the value and ability of people to prevent their own illness. ”
By shifting the focus of healthcare systems towards proactive, preventative care, as opposed to reactive, remedial care, it is possible both financially and socially to start to drive the benefits of UHC into many different healthcare systems. Essentially, healthcare has become much more affordable.
“It makes sense from a financial point of view, because universal healthcare allows the drive of services back up from acute care to primary care to personal care; providing it to people as part of an individual goal and directive as opposed to a government-funded scheme. ”
In the next blog in this series, we look at how data and digital solutions have aided in the healthcare challenges faced in poorer populations.
About Methods Analytics:
Methods Analytics is an end-to-end data services business, using the latest techniques and methodologies, data science, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to enable success across the public sector with a strong heritage in health.
Will Cooper, Commercial Director
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