Like other sectors of the economy, healthcare is being transformed by technology. The most obvious changes are at the front end, where health payment solutions, data analytics tools, virtual healthcare, wearable technology, and other products and services are addressing the needs of providers and patients. Companies are developing tools to help providers diagnose and treat illnesses, products to help providers interact more effectively with patients, and healthcare products for consumers.
Today’s healthcare consumers often feel overwhelmed when dealing with big insurance companies, large hospitals, and giant government agencies. Not surprisingly, mobile is among the largest technology categories demanding innovation in healthcare. The sector has a plum opportunity to deliver valuable information and a positive customer experience to the palm of the patient’s hand—literally. Mobile technology is a valuable channel for connecting with the healthcare recipient for delivery of a broad range of info.
Smartphones, cloud computing, and big data are being leveraged to create innovative and potentially disruptive solutions. Fortunately, smartphones and Wi-Fi have the potential to empower consumers by making healthcare more direct, personal, and timely. In turn, healthcare providers are learning from technology and putting networks to work. Networks developed for and used by the healthcare system are pushing innovation in diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
HealthTap has a monthly subscription model for access to its resource of 70,000 US-licensed, board-certified doctors. Such a set-up encourages someone who is not feeling well to reach out to a healthcare professional rather than nix a doctor’s appointment due to high co-pays, inconvenience, or no available appointments. A virtual doctor can at least listen to symptom descriptions, view photos of infected areas, prescribe medicines, and issue helpful suggestions. This type of healthcare is available a click away, 24/7, using an app, computer, tablet, or mobile device.
But healthcare information still remains largely siloed and unintegrated, resulting in reduced efficiency, higher costs, and poorer outcomes. According to a survey of IT leaders released by MeriTalk in August, poor data integration is responsible for $342 billion in lost benefits every year, as government health and human services agencies struggle to manage different data sets. Legacy technology and existing regulations are both contributing factors to a lag in data interoperability.
Another survey, from the consulting firm Accenture, revealed that only 46% of doctors believe that their electronic health records (EHR) system has improved patient outcomes, down from 58% in 2012. Moreover, 76% of doctors think that the poor interoperability of their EHRs has negatively impacted care. In a further example, a survey of leaders at accountable care organizations, conducted by eHealth Initiative, found that accessing outside data, then integrating it, were their first (78%) and second (62%) most urgent challenges.
GOVERNMENT STRIDES TOWARD DATA INTEGRATION
Health information exchanges, such as the California Integrated Data Exchange and the Statewide Health Information Network of New York, are working to gather and share health data, with the goal of reducing costs, increasing efficiency, and, ultimately, improving the quality of care.
The Meaningful Use standards established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are another example of the government’s role in promoting data integration. By offering payment incentives to healthcare providers and organizations, CMS encourages the implementation and “meaningful use” of healthcare information exchanges and qualified EHRs, among other objectives. The hope is that the incentives will eventually lead to an expanded use of interoperable data, which will in turn support improved care and outcomes. Greater reliance on electronic records should also help reduce the estimated $400 billion lost each year to waste and inefficiency resulting from the use of paper records.
Increasingly, however, data integration is being driven not by government agencies or regulations, but the private sector.
IBM’s Watson is a cognitive computing technology that draws from multiple inputs to generate insights quickly. The system is trained to gather information from other experts and sources, synthesize it, and offer input on the subject matter. As opposed to computers that are programmed based on logic, Watson interprets experience and feedback similar to how the human brain learns. The network can analyze medical records, identify potential treatment options, and support its ranked suggestions with evidence. For example, the IBM Watson for Oncology draws from 290 different medical journals, more than 200 textbooks, and upward of 12 million pages of text. The product then digests this information in less time than it would take a human—and it does so using an organized, understandable structure.
IBM’s Watson Health Cloud is gathering the health records of more than 50 million people in a secure cloud hub, thus demonstrating the potential of big data. With access to all this information, doctors will be able to identify patterns in disease progression, learn which treatments are working across populations, and provide better outcomes for patients with similar conditions.
In a very different example, but one that is based on a similar principle, Alignment Healthcare is partnering with St. Vincent’s HealthCare and Florida Blue to provide “population care” to Medicare patients. Population care uses group data to predict possible outcomes for individual patients. For example, if it is predicted from pooled data that an individual patient could be hospitalized within the next six months, then preemptive action could be taken to provide the care needed to avoid such an outcome.
Healthcare organizations worldwide are anticipated to invest in consumer-facing applications, remote monitors, wearable technology, and virtual healthcare. Social acceptance and popularity of wearable technology is increasing—as of March 31, 2015, Fitbit reported 9.5 million “paid active users.” The data collected by such wearable technologies, which also include Apple’s Watch and HealthKit, Jawbone UP3, and Nike Fuelband, could be particularly useful in the treatment of chronic conditions and diseases.
Heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis are examples of conditions that can be managed and controlled for a longer, healthier life. For these patients, longitudinal data from their smartphone apps and wearable technologies will help their health practitioners to better evaluate daily activities. Such shared data from the health trackers could also cut down on multiple face-to-face appointments. These apps and technology tools are easy to use and analyze, enabling the patient to feel empowered and informed about their own condition. And, the healthcare provider can identify patterns and best practices for optimizing the patient’s health.
Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone, and Apple’s Watch, as well as smartphone-based apps such as Apple’s ResearchKit and HealthKit, hold tremendous promise as sources of big data. A growing number of technology players are focusing on capturing this data and integrating it into EHRs. Once the data is in an EHR, a healthcare provider can offer better care to the device wearer. Uploaded to a platform such as the Watson Health Cloud, the patient’s information, combined with that of thousands or millions of others, can help researchers gain a clearer understanding of population health.
Few would argue that the implementation of EHRs has been smooth. Still, the clear advantages of electronic records over paper records, as well as the Meaningful Use incentive program, have led to an explosive rise in the use of EHRs: From 2008 to 2014, the percentage of hospitals adopting EHRs went jumped from 9% to 76%, according to the American Hospital Association.
The EHR of the future will provide more seamless connectivity within healthcare organizations and to systems on the outside, such as the Watson Health Cloud. Data will be more readily available and useful, and entering it will take less of doctors’ time—especially if it can be captured from mobile and wearable devices. Big data integration will support not only the patient’s care, but larger public health initiatives.