The healthcare sector is at a tipping point. The population of the EU is ageing. Current predictions from the EU Commission suggest that there will be a 72 per cent increase in the number of people aged 65 and over by 2050, meaning a third of the population will be close to retirement age in 35 years. According to IDC Health Insights¹, while demand is growing, resources and access to healthcare are shrinking. Along with evolving government regulations, healthcare organisations are under mounting pressure to deliver against harsh odds.
The integration of health and social care services is regarded by many as the turnkey solution to take pressure off the healthcare system – and it makes sense. With nearly a third of older people in Europe living with a chronic condition², anything with the ability to counter the fragmentation of services, reduce duplication and allocate increasingly sparse resources in a more efficient way can only be a good thing. Hospitals that are able to cooperate with social care will gain a much better rounded view of the patient, not to mention save time and administrative fees.
Seamless contact between healthcare and social care can reassure patients that their background will be understood and their needs met. And perhaps most importantly, with information effectively shared between the two services, healthcare can finally begin to move from a repair to a preventative system and deal with the demands of the 21st century.
A consumer-driven health system is also emerging, within which people judge their experience by the way they are handled as a person, rather than the way their disease is treated. The personalisation of healthcare is evidenced by the explosion of more than 97,000 mobile health apps worldwide and online peer to peer health communities for information sharing outside the traditional doctor-patient paradigm. Individuals can select and engage online tools and technologies to tailor their healthcare to their own values and goals.
In a personalised health system, care processes are no longer a one-size-fits-all model and data is democratised and made freely available for patients to become better informed. Digital technologies are used to better connect people to their healthcare team and enable consumers to be active partners in managing their own health and wellness.
Alongside integration and personalisation, the delivery of healthcare has been in the process of industrialisation for a while and is undergoing changes, which mirror those that began in other industries a century ago. Technology and better information management is greatly aiding this process. Electronic prescribing for example has been shown to make 50 per cent fewer prescription errors compared to handwritten. Prescriptions can be electronically checked to conform to sensible drug quantities, interactions with other medication, patient allergies and clinical conditions in mere moments within fully working electronic records and available patient information. There is an increasing push towards the standardisation of roles and tasks in order to streamline patient service, and a division of labour to help shoulder budget and staffing cuts. These changes all bring the promise of more efficient healthcare but industrialisation needs patient personalisation and the integration of services in order to reach its full potential.
The connecting tissue of all of this is of course information. Hospitals are collecting more data on patients than ever, as sophisticated technologies spread from major facilities to smaller, local ones. Web-based information sharing in the form of documents, images and reports is becoming increasingly common.
Tracking systems or software can reduce wait times and let doctors know the exact location of any patient at any time. Some hospitals are using portable wireless tablets to track patients and some use post-hospital tracking systems to help patients keep up with their follow-up appointments. Even patients themselves are increasingly tracking and recording their medical histories, in order to keep a tab on their care. Data-sharing and shared workflow systems also afford the patient more control, making it easier for example, to get a second opinion from a separate provider if they are unhappy about a proposed treatment.
Integration, personalisation and industrialisation are the three key forces of change that are paramount to keeping up with the demands of the 21st century. Yet even with the monitoring and data accumulation, consumerisation and automation of processes, healthcare has not fully evolved and congestion and inefficiency still continue. Technology of course is never without challenges, but for all its limitations, it is helping to coordinate and redefine healthcare in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. The hospital of the future, with fewer beds, fewer doctors and faster turnaround, is on the way. However, it will take time – and big changes – to finally get there.