/ 6 December 2019

Adapt as you adopt: Adjusting to digital health tech to drive access to care

Adapt As You Adopt: Adjusting To Digital Health Tech To Drive Access To Care
Jasper Westerink, chief executive of Philips Africa



Anyone who has received medical attention outside of their home country will know, from experience, that healthcare systems can vary greatly. This can make it confusing and difficult to navigate — my own visits to doctors in the Netherlands where I come from have been vastly different to visits in Indonesia or South Africa, both countries that I have lived in.

However, while there are great differences and varying challenges in providing healthcare from country to country, it remains true that their ultimate goal is much the same: providing affordable, quality care and to improve the experiences of both patients and healthcare professionals.

The Philips team is equally dedicated to making the experiences of patients and healthcare staff better — which form two elements of the Quadruple Aim in healthcare. The other two are better health outcomes and lower cost of care.

This commitment is a key part of why Philips commissions an annual research, called the Future Health Index (FHI). This research — which surveys more than 15 000 individuals that represent the adult general population and over 3 100 healthcare professionals across 15 countries, including South Africa — helps establish what is required to accelerate the shift from volume-based to value-based care in the global drive for sustainable healthcare systems.

Adaptation of the fittest: adjusting to new tech to overcome health challenges

It also explores the role digital health technology can play in achieving the Quadruple Aim — and this year, in the fourth edition of the report, one of the key findings was that countries with ever-evolving and transforming health systems need to constantly adapt their approach as they adopt new technologies to overcome challenges.

Digital health technologies have emerged as a critical tool in helping provide access to care, as well as in delivering solutions to help make individuals healthier, even in South Africa, which currently lags behind other countries with only 40% of healthcare professionals using digital health records in their practice or hospital.

Those who are using any form of healthcare technologies have noticed the positive difference it makes: 69% have found an improvement in quality of care, 64% have noted an increase in their own satisfaction and 59% have seen a positive impact on patient outcomes.

South African patients also realise the value of using technologies in managing their health, but, like the local healthcare professionals, they too are lagging behind in terms of adoption. Less than a third of South African citizens use digital health technology or mobile apps to track key health indicators because of concerns around costs and data security. However, 35% of individuals said they would be happy to start using technologies if they were more affordable, and 32% agreed that they would start utilising digital health technologies if they were guaranteed that their health data was secure.

Those South Africans that have already started using digital health technologies have been empowered to take control of and be proactive in managing their own health.

Over half — 58% — of South Africans said that they were more proactive in taking care of their health with access to their digital health records. This is because 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.

These findings show the wide-ranging ability of digital health technologies to improve the quality of care and the overall experience for both patients and healthcare professionals. And while it is true that South Africa is lagging behind some of the 15 countries included in our survey, it is just as true that the pace of adoption of health technologies is speeding up, and will continue on this trajectory as more affordable and innovative solutions are introduced.

Investment in technology is a journey, not a one-time event

More than simply adopting technologies as a once-off investment, healthcare professionals and patients will need to consistently adapt to these technologies to ensure that their true value is realised in opening access to care and helping deliver the highest quality of care.

In the current South African landscape, for example, this means investing in – and learning and adjusting to – telehealth and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Telehealth, which is the remote access to and management of health, can drive access to care and simultaneously improve the patient experience by eliminating the need to physically visit a doctor and wait in long queues.

Nearly 80% of South Africans reported not visiting a doctor when they had a medical reason to go because of average waiting times of over an hour: 88% of patients reported having to wait over an hour to see a general practitioner, while 92% had to wait over an hour to see a specialist.

Telehealth can overcome this challenge by facilitating remote consultations. However, healthcare professionals and patients alike will need to adapt and adjust to telehealth technology in order to ensure that it’s full value is being realised.

The same goes for AI, which is starting to be adopted more broadly, and which South African healthcare professionals are comfortable with and confident using. In fact, they even outpace their global peers, with 79% stating they are comfortable using AI for patient monitoring as opposed to the 15-country average of 63%.

This level of comfort undoubtedly creates opportunities to leverage AI in various ways to achieve the Quadruple Aim. But as with telehealth, it requires healthcare professionals and patients to adapt to the technology to derive its full value.

By and large, we are seeing more and more regularly how digital health technologies can help to improve the individual citizen and the healthcare professional experience, as well as drive better health outcomes and lower cost of care.

There can be no doubt that South Africa faces challenges with its healthcare system: access to affordable, quality care remains a hurdle for large parts of the population. But, as the 2019 FHI has illustrated, adoption of digital health technologies has the power to help turn those challenges into opportunities; our healthcare professionals and individual citizens will need to play their part and adopt and adapt to these technologies to see greater numbers of South Africans benefit from their potential.

Jasper Westerink is chief executive of Philips Africa