The Straits Times says

Prepare patients for digital healthcare

The National Health IT Summit last week evoked the prospect of innovations in healthcare like video medical consultation, wearable sensors, robots and 3D printing. There are plans already to harness data analytics and artificial intelligence in the upcoming Woodlands Health Campus. At a basic level, health records are to be digitised so they can be accessed by all health professionals and citizens by 2021, using either their computers or mobile devices. By making patients' medical histories and treatments readily available, even those with multiple chronic ailments can be monitored remotely so that timely action can be taken to safeguard their health, should the need arise.

This offers a simple illustration of how digital technology can make a difference in the health sector. From a broad perspective, the objective must be to ensure innovation offers value to people - in the form of services that are simply better, cheaper and faster. In a sense, consumers have an old analogue view of care that contrasts with the grand digital vision of technologists. For example, when innovators talk of the interoperability between health administrative systems (the linking of clinics, specialist centres, hospitals, labs and pharmacies), patients might ask if the development of high-tech solutions will drive up costs.

Techies would want to pursue waves of innovation like Star Trek-style medical sensors and the Nasa-inspired command centre at Johns Hopkins Hospital in America. But, a patient who is surrounded by robots and sophisticated gadgets might well ask: "Where's the human touch?" The bottom line: When people are not prepared for digital change, they might resist it. In "smart living" trials here, for example, elders covered sensors installed for safety as they feared a loss of privacy.

Essentially, people need to understand why healthcare has to evolve. Services have to be performed differently when supply is unable to meet demand. That is evident in many places around the world. Here, it has been estimated that 30,000 more healthcare workers will be needed between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, the number of Singaporeans aged 65 and above will expand to 900,000 by 2030. To extend the reach of public healthcare systems, various innovations will have to be deployed to reduce dependence on labour, like robots in hospital wards to assist nurses. Telemedicine offers convenience, and artificial intelligence can lead to cost-effective solutions.

Alongside a digital revolution in the health sector, Singaporeans will have to also prepare for another sea change: shifting eldercare from the hospital to the home and community. Hence, caregivers too will have to be familiar with the basic technology that will find its way into homes, like monitoring devices. Those at the helm of digital change should ensure these tools are designed for ordinary people and not just for geeks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Prepare patients for digital healthcare'. Print Edition | Subscribe