Health is one of the major drivers of human and social capital. Without good health, we wouldn’t be able to work or do any of the activities that we love; poor health impacts negatively on our quality of life and has a ripple effect on socioeconomic growth. This makes it absolutely essential to invest in healthcare systems and solutions that keep us healthy.
We mustn’t lose sight of why we are investing in these systems and solutions, though: helping to diagnose, treat and heal people. It’s vital that we remember that people are at the heart of healthcare, and that even as new health challenges arise, people remain the reason that we do what we do — so the future of health is about how to find the best and most effective ways to keep them healthy.
The answer to that conundrum is increasingly found through technology. Technology has already changed and saved countless lives, and it is going to continue to play a central role in health.
Jasper Westerink is the chief executive of Philips Africa
This is why Philips commissions the annual Future of Health Index (FHI) report, of which South Africa is one of the 15 key countries surveyed.
The FHI aims to establish what is required to accelerate the shift from volume-based to value-based care in the global drive for sustainable healthcare systems, as well as to explore the role digital health technology plays in improving both the individual citizen and the healthcare professional experience — two elements of the Quadruple Aim in healthcare. The other two elements are better health outcomes and the lower cost of care.
Making tech adapt to people’s needs and environments
Developing and utilising health technology solutions will be key to achieving those aims, but it is important to stress that technology alone cannot be successful in overcoming health challenges. People — both healthcare professionals and patients — need to be put at the centre of technologies such as AI in order for it to be truly effective.
In fact, we have done research that has shown how AI needs to adapt to people’s needs and environments to help healthcare professionals reach the Quadruple Aim, and empower patients to take control of their own health and live healthier lifestyles.
Using what we have called adaptive intelligence — the combination of AI solutions and the domain knowledge of healthcare providers, academia, and hospital networks — we are working towards ensuring that AI adapts to and augments people’s needs to ensure that their healthcare experience is seamless, integrated and personalised.
The World Health Organisation has also found that people need to be at the centre of healthcare. A WHO study stated: “We must use knowledge and technology rationally, holistically and compassionately, within a system of care that views people not as targets of interventions but as full and equal partners in preventing disease and enhancing health and wellbeing.”
The findings of our 2019 FHI report revealed the same. A key take-out was that informed and empowered patients typically take better care of their health. South Africans know they have a role to play, with 80% believing they have the biggest impact on their own health.
We found that giving an individual access to their own health data makes them more likely to engage with it in a way that will improve the quality of care they receive. In fact, 58% of South African patients with access to their digital health records said they were proactive in taking care of their health, showing that technology has the ability to put people at the heart of healthcare by empowering them to manage their own health.
Empowering patients to take control of their own health
One such technology that the FHI found is doing this is telehealth, which is the remote access to and management of health. It has the power to drive access to care by cutting down waiting times and enabling more people to get care when they really need it. The report showed that 74% of South Africans did not visit a healthcare professional when they had a medical reason to go, because of average waiting times of over an hour (88% of patients reported that they had to wait over an hour to see a general practitioner).
Telehealth can broadly address and solve that challenge. AI can also solve challenges, particularly when it comes to patient monitoring and flagging anomalies, and its benefits are being recognised more and more in South Africa.
Healthcare professionals in South Africa, for example, show more confidence in using the technology than their counterparts across all 15 countries surveyed: 79% are comfortable using it for patient monitoring, compared to the 15-country average of 63%, while 76% are comfortable to use it to flag patient anomalies, compared to 59% of the 15-country average.
This indicates that we can expect far greater uptake in the future, which will ultimately help put people at the centre of healthcare. So, too, will digital health records, which in addition to making people more proactive in taking care of their health, also fosters greater collaboration between patients and healthcare professionals: 84% of individuals with access to their records wanted their healthcare professionals to have access to it too.
Healthcare professionals agreed that this collaboration was a constructive step forward, with 58% noting that patients having access to their own health data had positively affected their experience in the last five years.
Using lessons from forerunners to put people at the heart of healthcare
These examples show the massive potential for digital health technologies to improve how people experience healthcare. It will, however, take time before the full extent of these benefits are felt, and our research showed that South Africa can learn valuable lessons from other emerging economies such as China, India and Saudi Arabia, which are leapfrogging many of the same challenges that this country currently faces.
Individuals in India, China, and Saudi Arabia who use digital health technology or mobile apps, for instance, reported that the information they receive from their digital health technology or mobile apps led them to contact a healthcare professional.
South Africa falls below the 15-country average (46%) in terms of individuals tracking their own health indicators, so increasing not only the adoption, but also the utilisation of digital health technology among South African individuals could empower patients to adopt a more proactive attitude toward health management.
Ultimately, this year’s Future Health Index report highlights that health and healthcare is all about people, but that technology can and will continue to play a critical role in accelerating positive change in healthcare.