It was about five years ago, in December 2017, when the FDA in the United States of America issued a landmark statement in recognition of the increasing adoption of digital health technologies by consumers and healthcare providers and therefore, that they as an organization must encourage efficient development of tools that can help people be more informed about their health. This significant move demonstrated that the world was acknowledging the importance of innovation in addressing inefficiencies and inequities in health systems. A certainty is that innovation is pivotal to overcoming challenges that conventional approaches face, in scaling up and delivering accessible, affordable and accountable high‐quality care.
Sustainable Health Systems
Furthermore, a sustainable health system should contribute to optimal health, while balancing the cultural, social and economic aspects of individuals and communities at large. Additionally, it must cover an individual’s healthcare needs from the promotion of health and prevention of disease to restoring health. At present, the aspect of restoring health has become even more significant, post the COVID-19 pandemic. There is now, a pronounced need for a health system that responds adaptively to new challenges, as and when they emerge. Hence, a health system of the future must pivot and progress in the face of new diseases, changing disease patterns and demographics, and also in keeping with advances in medical technologies. This dynamic requires an ecosystem with a slew of stakeholders working together creatively and flexibly, adapting to meet the changing healthcare needs of the present as well as that of future generations.
Thinking Beyond Digital Technologies
Technology is increasingly playing a critical role in health systems. Today, advances in medical technology along with developments in other areas such as communication and connectivity, robotics, AI and ML, biosensors, bioinformatics and big data are helping to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of care. The years ahead will see digital technology continuing to play a crucial role and yet, it cannot be assumed that this in itself can lead to sustainable improvements in healthcare. We must be cognisant that digital health is just one crucial facet of an ecosystem, which requires the support of a conducive policy environment and a nimbleness to change and adapt specific contexts, to hardwire sustainability into the ecosystem.
These policies should also ensure the ethical use of AI and ML technologies. Safety and transparency should be paramount in the ethical use of these ‘near sentient’ technologies to improve care in a fair manner without any bias.
As digital technologies become even more pervasive and intrusive, it is important to secure and safeguard patient data. Cybersecurity and data protection are key aspects to enable a sustainable health system that can safely transfer confidential data and store and distribute patient information to various care nodes. With healthcare data being one of the most sought after by cyber criminals (and India accounting for nearly 8 per cent of all global health-related cyber-attacks), this is a crucial aspect for all stakeholders in the sector.
The role of small, incremental and non-disruptive innovations
However, there is no magic formula to build a sustainable healthcare model. Studies have shown that improvements in health require keeping the consumer at the centre of all decisions and understanding their way of thinking to help them make the best choices regarding their health. Small, non-disruptive developments at the individual and organizational levels can be the fuel that drives sustainability and beyond that, there must be a multi-pronged approach that includes prevention, health promotion and a sharp alignment with the wider determinants of health.
Lessons from COVID-19
In coping with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world witnessed innovation at the core of response mounted by health systems around the world. The period saw rapid, needs-driven advances supported by regulatory flexibility, changes in clinical trial models, and research teams across the globe collating and sharing data. AI applications helped to triage patients when the healthcare infrastructure was under stress. Telemedicine with home testing ensured continuity of care. There was an increased demand for upskilling of health workers.
Unlocking the power of partnerships
A definitive also is that public and private healthcare should work together in an inclusive approach to health and social care. Harnessing data through collaboration and participatory co-creation with patients and healthcare providers will also help realise the power of innovation. This will in turn unlock greater value across digital health applications, medical devices and diagnostics to optimise the delivery of care and disease management.
Likewise, there must also be a shift towards employing innovative technologies to address gargantuan healthcare challenges such as the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases, which can be a crisis lot bigger than the pandemic. It is vital that inventive thinking is deployed across the entire healthcare pathway – beginning from how care is delivered to and experienced by patients. Innovation in digital and remote care will also make health systems agile and better equipped to handle crises and long-term needs in a sustainable manner. It is then that innovation will truly benefit patients through improved disease prevention, early detection, and personalized care delivery.
Preetha Reddy, was speaking at the ET SDG Summit 2022, a convergence of a diverse group of government heads, technocrats, Country representatives, business leaders, innovators and civil society as they discussed and debated on long term business solutions to tackle climate change and advance sustainable development.
Preetha Reddy, Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals & Past President NATHEALTH – Healthcare Federation of India