RON EMERSON discusses ways that technology could improve healthcare for our growing ageing population.

When it comes to mapping a vision for New Zealand’s healthcare industry, it’s clear that major changes are needed to improve fiscal management and clinical outcomes in order to create a sustainable future; particularly, when you consider that by 2041almost a quarter (24 per cent) of New Zealanders will be aged 65 or older.

John Ayling, PHO (Primary Health Organisation) Alliance chair, summed it up when he said, “Our health service is one of the greatest in the world. But we have an ageing population living with more long-term conditions, increasing incidence of obesity, the challenge of technological advancement and rising public expectations, all of which are combining to place unsustainable pressures on hospitals, general practices and aged care providers.”

It’s clear that this continued growth in an older population and subsequent demand on health services infrastructure, including access to specialists and practitioners, poses a significant challenge. Healthcare providers are starting to realise that prevention is better than cure, and that patient care should shift from treating ill health and chronic conditions to prevention and wellness – keeping people healthier for longer.

When wellness and improved care coordination makes fiscal sense

Putting in place a strategy that focuses on wellness and prevention is not only good medicine, but it’s also good business. According to a number of studies, it costs 3.5 times more to treat patients with chronic illness than it does to treat patients without it.

A study published in The New Zealand Medical Journal reported that 13.8 per cent of all acute medical admissions in over-65-year-olds were 30-day readmissions and 25.5 per cent were 90-day readmissions. This is not good for the patient, the hospital, or for the financing agencies. On the other hand, research has shown that excellent planning and good follow-up care coordination can improve patients’ health, reduce readmissions and decrease healthcare costs.

With more New Zealanders choosing to live at home as they age, what additional facilities and provisions are they going to need? It is expected that the delivery of collaborative and home-based care will become increasingly important.

Home-based care involves a broad spectrum of professionals, from nurses to medical specialists. Together, these advisors and specialists can work to address physical, emotional, spiritual and social concerns that reach beyond a single patient to involve family members and close friends. There is a requirement for collaboration and communication across all types of government agencies and citizens (both healthcare providers and patients with their support networks), regardless of location or situation.

Will disruptive technologies be the much needed catalyst for change?

Technology has long been used within the healthcare industry to deliver patient services and demand has continued to grow. With rapid advances in technology, is it time to question if existing technology is still relevant to the future needs of the healthcare sector?

Disruptive technology – essentially any innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing an earlier technology – is predicted to play a greater role in the delivery of healthcare services over the next decade. This includes things like mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IOT), wearable devices, cloud and big data, which healthcare has started to adopt, but which will evolve to become even more critical. In fact, I believe that by 2025, we will see disruptive technology becoming one of the most efficient ways to overcome healthcare bottlenecks.

Increased accessibility to broadband, mobility devices and applications has already enabled healthcare practitioners to deliver primary care. However, by 2025 it is expected that this will be accessible to the majority of all citizens. This will be driven by technology such as tablet devices and video collaboration solutions, which enable healthcare professionals to consult with patients anywhere.

Personal connectivity is also expected to change the way health services are delivered. Devices such as personal heart rate monitors, smart textile apparel that monitors the body’s vital signs, and sleep trackers will not only change the way healthcare professionals monitor and treat patients, but will also give patients greater power over their own healthcare outcomes.

These disruptive technologies are also expected to enable greater adoption of in-home virtual consultations, support the reduction of in-patient readmissions and increase the number of virtual appointments for remotely located patients.

Healthcare’s tech future

The healthcare industry is indeed transforming – ageing populations, healthcare reform and rapidly increasing costs are forcing us to do things differently. With these changes comes the need for effectively connecting care providers, team members, patients, and families so they can collaborate naturally and with impact, regardless of location or device.

Healthcare professionals need to understand how to take full advantage of disruptive technologies in the delivery of daily services. It will be vital to have leaders with technological experience to properly embed technology into workflows and ensure adoption throughout organisations.

Given New Zealand’s geographically dispersed population, we have the opportunity to lead the way in showing how innovative healthcare services and disruptive technology can help alleviate the challenges facing the sector. There is no doubt that incorporating technology like video collaboration into the delivery of healthcare services, will be critical to creating a positive healthcare future in New Zealand and around the world – but healthcare professionals need to start now.

Are you ready?

Ron Emerson RN BSN is Global Director of Healthcare for Polycom Inc.

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