By Calvin A. Omolo
In the past 50 years, the world has experienced a technological revolution. Tasks that used to require human direction can now be easily be completed by machines. However, when it comes to health, despite the promise that technology holds for healthcare providers, their organizations, and patients, there has been slow absorption and introduction of technology.
Many people are still amazed to find out that archaic communication methods such as pagers and faxes are still extensively used throughout the healthcare industry. This begs the question, why is it has taken so long for technology to transform how healthcare is delivered?
There are several underlining factors that retard the progress of technology in health. The introduction of technology in healthcare is not a novel idea; robots have been proposed to assist surgeries and fitness wrist wearables are gaining momentum, automated teller machines for over the counter drugs are being introduced.
However, there are several hurdles such as privacy of health records which prevents the main stream use of these technologies. We have seen reports where service companies have been hit by hackers and customer sensitive data exposed. Interestingly rarely its heard of hospitals or healthcare centers being hit. This has been attributed to old school way of keeping data records.
Technologies like fitness wrist wearable like FitBits seemed to be popular when the innovation was introduced to public. However recent studies by Accenture survey indicated that 53 percent of respondents in the survey noted that they wouldn’t be willing to wear technology that tracks vital signs or fitness and lifestyle. Their reasons were their data can easily be accessed and of late wrist fitness wearables sales are slowing down.
Other causes for difficulty in absorption of technology in health industry has been tough regulations as many healthcare entrepreneurs are often required to freeze their developments until they get regulatory approval. This approach discourages most innovators to venture in healthcare thus slowing down innovative disruption in health. Apple earlier in 2018 announced Apple Watch Series 4 and confirmed that the new device would bring ECG features.
Apple Watch series 4 device has features such as fall detection and 3 new heart monitoring capabilities that include low heart rate alert, heart rhythm detection, and a personal electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor. However, the company had to apply for approval from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before market introduction. On September 12th, 2018 despite Apple being the most valuable company in the world this was their first FDA approved product. The watch was approved as a class 2 device and failing to get class 3 device FDA approval that requires a more rigorous review process.
Creating an innovative tool or app that can help doctors and patients isn’t enough. These products must also be monetized. In health care, that proves difficult. Patients, physicians, hospitals and insurance companies long for the benefits and value of new technology. However, each think someone else should pay for it. Further, entrepreneurs must understand the financial difficulties are inherent in health care’s current fee-for-service payment model.
Doctors and hospitals will be slow to embrace any technology that lowers costs or reduce patient visits. Why? Because today’s payment model financially rewards doctors and hospitals for the volume and cost of services they provide – not the quality of outcomes they achieve. Until our payment model moves from fee-for-service to “pay-for-value,” some of the most effective technological solutions will be hard to sell in healthcare.
Since the introduction of generics in medicine, this has seen the reduction of costs, increased accessibility and availability of medicines to the public. When patent protection for a brand name drug expires the regulatory authority can approve a generic version of it for manufacturing and sale. Since generic drug manufacturers don’t develop a drug from scratch, the costs to bring the drug to market are lower. The concept of generics has been proposed in technology for healthcare, however it is proving difficult to apply.
When a company develops a technology; their vision is to sell to as many clients as possible. Drug patent protection period before generic manufacturing is allowed is up to 20 years. If that is applied in technology the technology will become obsolete by the time the generic production is allowed. More so Every Hospital has unique needs; that might not be addressed by the generic technology available in the market and developing it from scratch is always require big investment and time.
South Africa recently launched an ATM-like vending machine to dispense medicines to patients with chronic illnesses such as AIDS in a move aimed at reducing waiting times and congestion in public healthcare facilities. However, many patients and doctors decry that technology creates a barrier between the patient and the doctor. The coveted doctor patient relationship has been seen as a key pillar in medicine.
The patients themselves likel to talk about the importance of the human touch and how subjective the “art of medicine” is thus providing personalized using technology proves to be difficult at this moment in time. Both the patients and doctors see technology as impersonal. Informing the patient of their disease conditions necessitates several considerations such as time, compassion, empathy and great interpersonal skills, nevertheless the best possible treatments that results to better therapeutic outcomes will require application of technology and science.
Adoption of technology in healthcare faces a lot of hurdles and conflict of interest which hinder its introduction and innovative disruption of the industry. Transition from the ideation and conceptualization to market introduction faces a lot of challenges such as lack of alignment between regulatory requirements and the end users leaving little chance of widespread success and adoption.
However, technology is developing at a very high rate with corporations with global appeal such as Apple, google, Amazon and Microsoft eying healthcare industry. Inevitably consumers will be accustomed to a certain degree of technology driven decision making in their lives including management of their own health. As in any transformation there always winners and losers, if we don’t navigate this evolution effectively, we risk missing out on the opportunities and the potential for technology to be develop without patients and doctors’ best interests in mind.
The writer isBpharm (St John’s University of Tanzania, MPharm (University of Kwazulu-Natal), PhD candidate (University of Kwazulu-Natal).