If you work in healthcare or medicine, then you know that the industry is facing some pretty significant challenges in need of solutions. The most significant of these challenges include:
- Rising healthcare costs
- Inefficient processes
- Poor access to healthcare
- Poor quality of care
- And a lack of patient-specific treatment
These challenges are the culmination of decades of shifts within the healthcare industry and have the potential to dramatically reshape how the industry functions for both the patient and the practitioner. And while they are large challenges, thanks to the advent of new technologies, it appears that they could be resolved within the coming decade.
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Below, we discuss these challenges, the technologies that may soon be used to address them, and the steps that you can take to begin to prepare to help tackle them.
Major Healthcare Challenges Being Solved by Digital Health Technology
1. Reducing Healthcare Costs
People are collectively living longer than they have at any point in recorded history. While this is clearly a positive development brought about by tremendous medical advancements, it does also bring a challenge: The longer people live, the more medical resources must be devoted to them in order to support healthy and active lifestyles. This rising demand has increased the cost of healthcare for all individuals.
According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), healthcare spending is expected to rise an annual average 5.5 percent from 2017 to 2026, at which point it will account for nearly 20 percent of the U.S. economy. In total, healthcare spending in the U.S. is expected to reach at least $5.7 trillion by 2026, driven largely by higher drug prices.
When it comes to solving the problem of ever-increasing healthcare costs, prevention is going to play a very important role. Preventing a chronic disease is, after all, much more cost effective in the long run compared to treating the disease. Though a prevention-first approach will take a multi-pronged plan of action in order to be effective, technology will likely play a large role.
Specifically, wearable technology—sensors allowing for the real-time monitoring of everything from activity level to blood pressure, heartbeat, and blood glucose levels—hold a lot of promise. By partnering the widespread adoption of these devices with data analytics, it may one day soon be possible to monitor patient health from afar and intervene directly to prevent these costly, chronic diseases from happening.
2. Reducing Inefficiencies in Healthcare
American healthcare is a strange industry in the way that it utilizes both extremely high-tech solutions, like genome sequencing and augmented reality, and extremely low-tech processes, such as paper-based recordkeeping that must ultimately be digitized at a later date.
This isn’t just counterproductive; it’s wasteful. Administrative expenses play a large role in rising healthcare costs. In fact, it has been estimated that half of the money spent annually in the US on healthcare administration is ultimately wasted. Reducing these inefficiencies will be key to addressing many of the overarching concerns plaguing healthcare. One such process in need of modernization is patient record sharing.
When a patient moves from one hospital or physician to another, records must generally be physically copied and either delivered as hard-copy or faxed to the new provider, which can take time and often leads to incomplete records. This can be extremely hazardous to patients undergoing complex treatments, for whom complete records are essential.
There are a number of technologies being explored, however, which may one day be able to address these concerns. One potential solution may be using blockchain to store and share patient records. This could not only allow for a complete record to be maintained but also allow for secure transmission of patient records in a way that protects patient privacy and ensures the integrity of the data.
3. Improving Healthcare Access
In order for a person to benefit from the major advancements in modern medicine, they first must have access to those advancements. Unfortunately, along both socioeconomic and geographic spectrums, healthcare access is not equitably distributed.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), access to healthcare can be broken into three separate issues:
- Insurance coverage: Whether or not a patient is able to afford the costs to treat both acute and chronic illness
- Geographic availability: Whether or not a patient is located somewhere where they have access to healthcare facilities and services
- Timeliness of care: Whether or not a patient is able to address a medical concern in a timely fashion, whether it be a life-threatening injury or a slowly-developing chronic condition
Issues of geographic availability and timeliness of care are already being addressed through the use of technology today, through the use of smartphones, laptops, and tablets that can facilitate an appointment even when a patient cannot physically reach their doctor. The increased prevalence of telemedicine and e-visits allows patients to interact with caregivers virtually—a boon for those with limited mobility or those living in remote or hard-to-reach locations generally underserved by healthcare services. It’s likely that access to healthcare will continue to be addressed by advancements in and utilization of technology.
4. Increasing Quality of Care
When it comes to healthcare, a lot of time is spent asking questions about increasing or improving “quality of care.” What each of these questions is really trying to answer is: How can we ensure that the patient gets the treatment and support that they need in order to have a positive outcome?
It’s an important question to ask, but one without an easy or clear-cut solution, largely because the solution often requires a multi-faceted approach. One thing that is clear, though, is that quality of care can be dramatically improved by healthcare providers always keeping their thinking patient-focused—an admitted challenge, especially for a healthcare system that is overly burdened and chronically understaffed. After all, how many patients can a single physician or team of nurses be expected to treat before the quality of care begins to suffer?
While addressing the shortage of nurses and doctors should be high on the priority list, until that is sorted out, it is likely that technology will play an increasingly important role as a safeguard against error that could have serious negative effects on patient outcomes.
The introduction of telehealth and virtual or e-visits, for example, may facilitate specialist consultations when a specialist is not available, as discussed above. Similarly, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning may come to play important roles in identifying patients who are at higher risk of hospital-borne illness, post-operative infections, or other complications, enabling their providers to proactively preempt these complications from occurring.
5. Making Medicine More Patient-Specific
The advent of treatments that could be used to treat large segments of the population at once was a game-changer for the field of medicine. Broad-spectrum antibiotics and mass-produced pharmaceuticals ushered in the era of modern medicine in which we now live.
Unfortunately, these treatments also brought with them a number of serious consequences. Our overuse and over-dependence on broad-spectrum antibiotics, for example, has led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant disease, while our over-reliance on one-size-fits-all pharmacology has sometimes led to tragic and unforeseen consequences for some patients.
It’s for this reason that patient-specific treatment, drugs, and therapies are likely to be the future of medicine and pharmacology. For example, instead of using a broad-spectrum antibiotic to treat an infection, physicians are increasingly performing tests to identify the precise antibiotic that will be most effective in treating a disease. Instead of assuming a patient will react well to a certain drug, physicians are increasingly designing drugs to be patient-specific in order to ensure effectiveness—particularly important in the treatment of diseases like cancer.
This treatment is driven in large part by the emerging field of nanomedicine, which allows for patient-specific drugs and molecules to be created and deployed for more effective treatment. Also important are tools like wearable trackers and sensors, which allow healthcare providers to monitor the effects of their treatments, and the use of artificial intelligence, which can analyze massive amounts of data in order to determine which treatments will work best for a given disease or patient.
Preparing Yourself for the Healthcare of Tomorrow
Healthcare, like almost every industry, is rapidly changing thanks to the advent of new technologies. In order to stay competitive in the field and provide the best care for their patients, practitioners must do their part to stay aware of these burgeoning technologies and proactively seek the skills that will enable them to make use of the technologies as they enter the industry.
To find out more about how an advanced degree can help prepare you to meet these demands, explore our advanced healthcare programs.